Monday, September 14, 2009

TIFF Review - Daybreakers

Friday night was a bloodsucking double bill. Following Suck, I powerwalked to see Daybreakers.

Let's face it - vampire movies are THE horror classic. Zombies go through their cycles, but vamps never really leave the scene. We know the rules - sunlight, garlic, stakes to heart, and sometimes crosses and holy water don't mesh well with them. They're often rather aristocratic, and are often quite civil until they get hungry. Usually, there's a head vampire somewhere up the ladder.

Michael and Peter Spierig have taken those classic tropes and added their own twists.

It's 2019, ten years after a single bat started an outbreak of vampirism. Most of the human population are now nosferatu. We join this world on the brink of a food crisis - the humans have all but run out, and there's not enough blood to go around.

The world hasn't really changed all that much, outside of golden eyes, pale skin, and fangs. People still go to work, corporations still control everything, markets trade, nations are separated by their wealth, the military machine still rolls on, and Chrysler is a viable car company. Okay, so that last one is a bit odd.

Little changes are pointed out though. Your coffee comes with 20% blood. Your brother brings you a bottle of the finest 100% pure human for your birthday. Nobody really goes out during the day, although the cars have been modified to make it possible, and there's an extensive underground pedestrian system (which reminded me of Toronto's PATH).

So, what happens when these vamps don't get blood? They mutate, becoming "subsiders". Starting off with elongated Vulcan-like ears, their brains eventually break down and they transform into human-sized bat-things who crave only blood.

And as I said, the blood is running out. Call it a lack of foresight, but the human population is just about gone. The animals turned vampiric too, so there's not even much pig blood to go around. Enter Edward (Ethan Hawke), chief hematologist for the number one blood-provider in the world. He diligently works for his boss Charles Bromley (Sam Neill), but not for the same reasons. Edward never wanted to be turned, and he hates what's been done to the human population. He's seeking a blood substitute so that humanity can be saved. Bromley, however, couldn't be hapier to be a vamp, and has a more commercial purpose in mind.

As the crisis worsens, Edward comes across a band of humans, led by Elvis (Willem Dafoe), who know something nobody else does, and that Edward is keenly interested in. He sets out to change the world.

The Spierigs had one big goal in mind - make a fun vampire movie. I got the impression from the post-movie Q&A that any social commentary was secondary to this aim. It's there - blood is oil or water, humans today aren't any less evil than vampires would be, corporations and capitalism are heartless machines - but it's never so heavy-handed as to detract from the movie.

Seeing it with a crowd ready for blood was the right way to go - explosions of entrails and plasma were greeted with cheers, lines purposely designed to become Army of Darkness-like classics were laughed at (basically, any time Dafoe opens his mouth, it's worth a laugh, and he does it with gusto), and the ideas brought forth were applauded. The classic vampire clich├ęs aren't wandered from, and the new aspects brought in seem to be natural answers to "what would a world of vampires really be like?"

There are a few head-scratching moments - like vampires suddenly exploding as if they've been stuffed with C-4 when they get staked. It's almost like they ran out of money for fake blood, so brought in fireworks instead. But these are redeemed by some truly great scenes, especially those that deal with the question of how you save those you love when vampires are roaming the streets.

And there's an aesthetic to the whole movie that fits perfectly. Early scenes are reminiscent of Dark City or Blade Runner - a modernized noir that only makes sense when your world runs at night. This is contrasted with the overly-bright daytime scenes. We feel how harsh the sun has become to a world where most can't survive it. Then, when the humans come into play, the night becomes a foreboding and dangerous void, with daylight becoming their saviour.

So, where does Daybreakers fit in the pantheon of vamp cinema? It's probably the best pure vampire movie I've seen in recent years. It's not the teen-drama-weepy crap that is Twilight, and we can be thankful for that. In fact, there's no romantic subplot of any kind. It's not trying to be as cool as Blade or Underworld, yet isn't short on style. It's actually a reasonably intelligent take on the genre, but isn't afraid to have itself a bloodbath or two.

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