DECEMBER 10, 2009
The 4th movie I watched for Horror Movie A Day (pre-review days) was the Spierig Brothers’ Undead, and I didn’t much care for it. It was impressive for its small budget and all, but the story was all over the place and the humor didn’t really work for me. So I wasn’t expecting much out of Daybreakers (that it’s been on the shelf for almost 2 years didn’t help), despite a kickass trailer and some positive notes after it played at Fantastic Fest a few months back. But I was wrong - it’s a damn good movie.
The thing I liked most was that it didn’t have this giant backstory and a bunch of lore and curses, like the Underworld films get bogged down in. It’s actually a pretty straight forward tale told against a huge backdrop (a future where 95% of the population is comprised of vampires, who are now starving due to a lack of blood). If this movie takes off, Lionsgate can milk the property for years across a variety of mediums (it would certainly make for a good comic), because it’s a pretty vast (and believable) world and this particular story only focuses on a few people living in it.
Our main guy is Ethan Hawke, a vampire who only drinks animal blood and has a soft spot for humans. He is attempting to invent a blood substitute at the request of the evil businessman who runs the mob-like pharmaceutical company (sort of like Rotti Largo in that respect), played by Sam Neill. But what Hawke really wants to do is find a cure for vampirism, so that they can become human again. And along comes Willem Dafoe and some other folks as an outlaw group of humans who may just have the answer.
I won’t spoil what that answer is, but suffice to say Hawke and Dafoe have a breakthrough, and the film is basically a race against the clock/chase movie in which the evil vampire groups are trying to get Hawke back on their side (and kill his new human friends) before the blood runs out for good. The growing panic is largely depicted in little vignettes that are otherwise unconnected to the main story, such as when the Starbucks-esque coffee company reduces how much blood they put in their coffee and the customers riot. These scenes are a nice contrast to the Hawke scenes, which are largely built on character and suspense. Not that their scenes are completely action-free, but as Hawke is a form of pacifist, it wouldn’t make much sense for him to be running around guns blazing too often. Even in the finale, Hawke uses his brains instead of weaponry, but the Spierigs provide us thrill-seeking audience members with a big battle between some vampires and humans elsewhere in the building.
Dafoe, on the other hand, is having a grand old time with his trusty crossbow and penchant for colorful one-liners (“that makes about as much sense as bare-backin’ a five dollar whore!”), and he gets behind the wheel for the film’s top-notch car chase that occurs around the end of the first act. After Antichrist, it’s nice to see him having some fun in a real horror movie (though this is more sci-fi action in tone, albeit with some applause-worthy gore and splatter). If not for the sort-of love interest (the very lovely Claudia Karvan), it could easily have been a buddy movie with Hawke and Dafoe taking on evil vampires, and I doubt anyone would complain. It’s always fun to see a “dramatic” actor appear in genre entertainment, so to get THREE in one movie (a good one at that) is worth the price of admission alone.
WETA’s effects are, unsurprisingly, phenomenal. There are different stages of vampirism (most of them still look human save for their yellowed eyes, but the ones that are starving/sick are more bat-like creatures) and they all look great, and the assorted kills are all delivered with the utmost skill. It’s also a good looking film; shot with the digital Genesis camera system. I don’t fully understand the technical jargon about the camera, but it seems to be some sort of film/digital hybrid (according to Wikipedia, Repo was also shot with the camera), and assuming it’s cheaper than film (which is the big selling point for digital filmmaking) than I, huge proponent of film, can totally live with it. Looks a hell of a lot better than whatever the fuck they were using for Public Enemies, at any rate.
My only sorta issue with the movie is that it sometimes races along a bit too quickly. Maybe it was edited down a bit (it’s only 98 minutes long with credits), and if so I hope we see that stuff put back into the DVD. For example, Undead’s hero Mungo McKay plays a guy who hates vampires and is clearly at odds with the idea of having to work with Hawke’s character. But they set this up and do nothing with it, and he dies in the first half hour (at least I think he does, I can’t recall him even having a death scene. He certainly doesn’t appear anymore once Hawke starts solving the problem). It’s clear that the Spierigs were just as interested in character and story as they were action and effects, but sometimes the editing doesn’t seem to match that approach.
But it’s hardly a real problem, and again, for all I know it was just meant to throw you off; you expect a clichéd, traditional sort of “I hated you before but now I see you’re right and we’ll be friends” type of scene only for him to be discarded in the first half hour without ever really interacting with Hawke again, making it more of a surprise. I dunno. All I know is, the movie is a damn good time, and since most other great vampire films of late are based on comics or games or books (Let The Right One In, Night Watch), that makes Daybreakers the best completely original vampire film in years.
What say you?