Vampires seem to be going through a bit of a resurgence at the moment, don’t they? In the past couple of years alone, we’ve had hit US TV series True Blood, cult Swedish film Let The Right One In, the lamentable Lesbian Vampire Killers, and that thing with the sparkly bloodsuckers who stalk teenage girls. Daybreakers gets the new decade off to a flying start in the vamp stakes (see what I did there?), presenting a unique and exciting take on the vampire mythos.
What’s so different, I hear you ask? The most significant change from ‘the norm’ is that the undead of Daybreakers are no longer an ethnic minority; thanks to a plague-like outbreak in 2009 (regrettably already dating the film), vampires now make up 95% of the Earth’s population, with the few remaining humans being hunted down and farmed for blood.
Ten years have passed since the outbreak when the movie begins, and blood supplies are running low. Vampire haematologist Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) is frantically working to produce a blood substitute, but the blood shortage is already taking its toll on the population, and the situation seems hopeless. But when Dalton meets a human survivor (Claudia Karvan) who holds the key to a medical breakthrough, he is pitted against his own kind in a struggle which will decide the future of humanity…
Despite the omnipresence of vampires in this movie (I promise you they don’t sparkle), Daybreakers is not a horror film. The gothic Anne Rice trappings of vamp culture have been shunned in favour of a world much like our own, where the vampires go to school, go to work and lead mostly normal lives. It just all happens after the sun goes down.
Instead, writer-directors Michael and Peter Spierig have opted to make a sci-fi thriller, with Edward’s conflict with his company (headed by Jurassic Park‘s Sam Neill) at the heart of the story. That’s not to say that there isn’t gore, mind. There were several moments where I was compelled to look away from the screen, having forgotten to take my sick bag to the cinema. There are few shocks (though when they do happen you’ll jump out of your seat), but there’s a rather ghastly monster in the form of the subsiders, vampires who have been deprived of human blood, and who are brilliantly realised (if underused).
Given the film’s fantastical premise, it is reassuringly grounded in reality. There’s not a flying car or cyborg to be seen in the Spierigs’ version of 2019, and there’s a sly sense of humour throughout, from Uncle Sam-style ‘hunt the humans’ posters to the semi-familiar scene of workers queuing up outside their local coffee shop to buy their cups of blood on the way to work. The majority of the vampires are painted as fully-rounded creatures with morals and emotions, with Ethan Hawke putting in a sterling performance as Dalton. He serves as the viewer’s route into this strange world, and he clearly has severe issues with his lifestyle.
Indeed, it is only Ed’s boss, played with a ham factor of 11 by Sam Neill, who seemingly resists most attempts to give his character a third dimension, preferring to remain gloriously evil throughout. That said, even he has a few moments where the audience is left feeling almost sorry for him.
There are a few weaker links in the cast, namely Claudia Karvan as the love interest and Michael Dorman as Ed’s younger brother, both of whom put in by-the-numbers, but unspectacular, performances in their supporting roles. However, both seemed to have slightly perfunctory roles within the story, which may explain why they weren’t able to do as much with their characters as Hawke or Neill.
The show is stolen, though, by Willem Dafoe as Lionel ‘Elvis’ Cormac, a human survivor with a surprising backstory. Almost unrecognisable at times, Dafoe springs to life whenever he’s on screen, almost to the point of upstaging his fellow actors, truly becoming his wild-eyed rebel.
To say that this is a contender for one of my films of the year would mean very little at this point, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it appears somewhere in my list come December. It’s a nice mix of action, sci-fi and thriller, and the tension keeps up throughout. It’s not perfect, and there are elements of the climax that are both predictable and cheesy, but I could have sat through much more of this. Indeed, the film’s ending seems to scream ‘sequel’, and if they make it, I’ll be there…