Thursday, February 20, 2020

Daybreakers Is Gory Vampire Cinema Done Right

What immediately stood out to me about the opening scene of Daybreakers is how much it eschewed dialogue. Typically, high-concept genre movies set in some kind of near-future world (here, it's the then-future landscape of 2019) bombard the viewer with voice-over narration to try and make sense of the world. But aside from two lines of on-screen text, Daybreakers introduces the viewer to its vampire-dominated world through visual-oriented storytelling that doesn't just value the viewer's intelligence but also provides plenty of fun in the process. Who needs monotonous voice-over work to explain a vampire society when you can just show audiences what that world is like?

Said world is one where the majority of Earth's population has been turned into vampires. The scant few humans who remain are hunted down and drained for their blood by big companies like Bromley Marks. Though everybody is super pale and only able to go out at night, things seem to be relatively normal in the world of Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke), a vampire who works for Bromley Marks. Unbeknownst to the general public, there's a shortage of human blood that his company is trying to find a substitute for. Such a shortage could prove to be an issue given that vampires turn into vicious mindless monsters if they abstain from human blood for a prolonged period of time.

Eventually, Dalton is recruited by human survivors Audrey (Claudia Karvan) and Elvis (Willem Dafoe) to help them find a cure for vampirism. Dalton, who was unwillingly turned into a vampire, agrees to help them, a choice that makes him an enemy of his employer, Charles Bromley (Sam Neill). The premise of Daybreakers, thankfully, forgoes getting too bogged down in pointless digressions that could muck up the potential schlocky fun. We have humans, vampires, the search for a vampire cure and plenty of gory violence. All that plus Willem Dafoe with a sporadically present Southern accent and Sam Neill in full-tilt mustache-twirling villainy mode. These are the essential ingredients of cinema.

The Spierig Brothers, who wrote the script in addition to directing, know just what moviegoers who enter Daybreakers are gonna want and they manage to deliver that without sacrificing decent filmmaking and engaging world-building in the process. The duo especially has fun with the latter element, there's plenty of creative background gags and details subtly fleshing out how exactly a vampire society works that are a ton of fun. I especially love an underground tunnel system that allows vampires the chance to walk around outside during the daytime as well as automobiles that give off warnings to their vampire passengers about the presence of daylight.

That world is put to use on a cogently-told story that has appropriately dumb-fun moments (including a cure for vampirism that had me going "....sure"), though a handful of aspects of the story do feel like they could have used an extra jolt of uniqueness. Audrey, for instance, is basically around to just be a love interest and damsel-in-distress character rather than an entertaining figure in her own right. The fact that she's usually paired up with Dafoe as a crossbow-wielding Southerner named Elvis only reinforces that Audrey is a character who could have used a pinch more of a distinctive personality. It also would have been nice to see the political undertones of the story lead to somewhere more substantive, even if the films contempt for the wealthy is enjoyably-realized.

Those shortcomings in Daybreakers don't take away from its best moments, though, including a bonkers climax that sees every inch of the frame draped in vampire blood as a seemingly endless sea of carnage unfolds in front of the viewer. It's a nasty sequence but boy is it a fun one to watch, especially since The Spierger Brothers have it constantly escalating in madness. Eventually, this finale resembles nothing more than the scene in The Cabin in the Woods where all the horror creatures come running out of the elevators. Any movie that inspires comparisons to that 2012 Drew Goddard directorial effort is bound to have its virtues and Daybreakers certainly gives those looking for fun vampire cinema plenty to chomp on.

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