Saturday, January 16, 2010

The January Curse is Broken

Traditionally, January is a bad month for movies, particularly horror films. Facing a post-holiday dip in attendance, studios dump whatever they have on the shelves into theaters, and the horror fan, a segment of the moviegoing population still willing to shell out bucks to experience a new thriller in a theatrical setting, frequently gets burned.

Well, that changed this year with the release of Daybreakers, the marvelous new vampire drama from Peter and Michael Spierig (Undead). I call it a drama because it's got some surprisingly emotional content that puts it head-and-fangs over yawn-inducing action-oriented bloodsucker epics like From Dusk Till Dawn and John Carpenter's Vampires. Vampires and action don't mix (with occasional exceptions like the original Blade). While there are certainly a lot of action scenes in Daybreakers, it is driven by a plot that provides an interesting expansion of the vampire mythos, along with some eyecatching film noir/Bladerunner-style art direction.

It is the year 2019. A plague has transformed almost of all the world's population into vampires. They've developed their own culture which mimics human life with a vampire twist, and they've built special homes and means of transportation to keep out of the deadly sunlight. Ethan Hawke stars as Edward Dalton, a scientist  employed by Bromley Marks, one of those ominous conglomerates that is harvesting what's left of humanity to feed the vampire population. The company is headed by Charles Bromley (Sam Neill), an especially cold-blooded vampire whose own daughter has resisted "conversion". The vampires are reaching a crisis point, though—they're running out of human food. They're beginning to feed on each other and even themselves, transforming them into "Subsiders," mute, vicious, batlike creatures who've lost any trace of humanity and exist only to feed. Edward's task is to create an acceptable form of synthesized blood as quickly as possible.

A chance encounter with a group of human survivalists including Elvis (Willem Dafoe) makes Edward more compassionate toward their plight. And Elvis tells Edward that he is a former vampire, having inadvertently cured himself in a chance encounter with sunlight. Edward decides to recreate the experiment with himself as the guinea pig.

I know a lot of people don't share my enthusiasm, and I have to admit I'm a sucker (ha!) for vampire movies, but Daybreakers' dismal performance at the boxoffice and drubbing by critics is really unwarranted in my opinion. Even Hawke called it "silly" in an interview. But he brings conviction to his performance and Dafoe is a lot of fun as the freewheeling Elvis. Plus the idea of vampires cannibalizing and drinking their own blood out of desperation, transforming them into the creepy Subsiders, is great.

I admit that I enjoyed the Full Moon direct-to-video Subspecies series from the 1990s, even though each installment was essentially the same movie. I also liked Dracula 2000 and Dracula 2001 or whatever the hell the sequel was called. I caught all of them on cable or home video, though, and if I had paid eight bucks a shot to see them in the theater, I may not be so enthusiastic about them. I did  pay to see the previously-mentioned lame-os, and Guillermo Del Toro's Blade II was a huge disappointment. Daybreakers, however, was well worth the trip to the theater in a freezing San Antonio rainstorm, and if you're a vampire fan, make sure you check it out. But hurry—it's not going to last long in theaters. The January curse seems to have trained fans to avoid films released this month, no matter how good they may be.

UPDATE: I saw Daybreakers again today (Sunday, January 24) and it completely held up. Actually, it  was even better, because I saw some stuff I missed the first time. The theater in San Antonio I saw it at the first time was also a restaurant, and we were being served our lunch during the establishing scenes. How much should you tip when the server has to stumble through the darkness carrying three plates?

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