Vampires are demon lovers courtly but toxic beaux, your dreamiest, most dangerous blind date. That's been the movie norm, from the Bela Lugosi Dracula in 1931 to today's Twilight saga. But there's another view of the tradition, an alterna-vamp, that begins with the first important horror movie, F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu, and was touched on in Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark and the Francis Coppola Dracula. It's the vampire as pure predator, a gaunt, subhuman pestilence, the ultimate parasite whose host is the rest of us. Nothing sexy about these creatures, or their act of feasting on our blood. They walk and talk like real people, but they're vermin: rats who drive humanity bats.
The vampire-as-vermin gets another workout in this weekend's Daybreakers, an imaginative but wanly executed effort from the German-born twins, Michael and Peter Spierig. They picture a near future in which a plague has turned 90% of the world into vampires. The upside: immortality. Then again, with the vast majority of the population now bloodsuckers, there's a significant shortage of bloodsuckees: the few remaining humans, most of whom are imprisoned and "farmed" in a vast, multi-tiered, Matrix-like abattoir where their blood is systematically drained. Still, it's not enough. As I learn from a fellow reviewer of Daybreakers, Peter Hartlaub in the San Francisco Chronicle, "the average human body holds approximately 1.5 gallons of blood." That's less than 11 bottles of beer, which your average jock vampire could quaff during a single Super Bowl.
As the human population is depleted, there's worldwide panic, a run on the blood bank, with no bailout in sight...unless Bromley Marks, one of the major blood-supplying companies Big Farma can develop a blood substitute. The vampires are addicts; and if real blood is their heroin, this would be their methadone. Leading the experiment is Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke), Bromley Marks' chief hematologist. But Edward doesn't have his heart in his work. When his younger brother Frankie (Michael Dorman), a soldier in the vampire army, brings him a birthday bottle of vintage blood (sang-real-a?), Edward snaps, "I've turned 35 10 times. Birthdays are pointless," and adds the philosophical, "Life's a bitch, and then you don't die." (Salon's film critic, Stephanie Zacharek, has a better version "Life sucks, and then you don't die" but unfortunately that line isn't in the movie.)
At the beginning of the plague, going red was a decision most of the population made except for people like Edward, who was vamped by his brother. So he's ripe for being tapped by some renegade humans led by Elvis Cormac (Willem Dafoe) and his henchwoman Audrey (Claudia Karvan). In the spirit of modern sci-fi movie thrillers like Avatar and District 9, the insider goes outside to join forces with the aliens. Becoming human is a painful process exposure to sunlight in brief, sharp blasts but for Edward, it's a chance at redemption. Vampires live forever, but on other people's blood. Only by being mortal again can he truly live.
The first and most beguiling part of Daybreakers introduces us to this undead society, where young women wear crimson lipstick and blood is sold at the equivalent of coffee bars I'll have a double-frappuccino hemoglobin, please. Set in 2019, the movie has a retro-future look, naturally indebted to Blade Runner, but which the Spierigs and their design team have brought to artful life on a less than lavish budget, with cool blues and grays complementing the vampires' pallor. (You'll get another retro-future landscape next week in The Book of Eli, directed by another twin-brother team, Allen and Albert Hughes.) Made in Australia back in 2007 for not much money, the movie looks both distinctive and plausible. It's much savvier at visualizing a things-to-come world than this weekend's new romantic comedy, Leap Year, is at bringing Ireland to life, and all Leap Year's director had to do was wait for the rain.
In their ecosystem parable, the Spierigs show they have minds that can invent a plausible society, and quite the eye for decorating their imaginary landscape, but no gift for bringing individual scenes and characters to life. The movie gets logy in its middle sections, and the sound recording makes it seem that everyone spoke into steel drums. Most of the actors are like plasticene puppets on a stop-motion movie set; their creators were so dazzled by their skills at art direction that they forgot to animate the figures. In standard-narrative terms, Daybreakers suffers from tired blood. No question the Spierigs are prime film imagineers. What they needed here was a director.
The movie has a couple of brief enliveners. Dafoe triumphs over some awful dialogue by giving the role his nutsy-greatsy weirdness. And there's a really cool scene where Edward's home is invaded by a vampire that is severely blood-deprived its face a skeleton, its skin parched, but majestic when it spreads its scaly bat wings and digs its long talons into the ceiling. Let the Robert Pattinson-style vampire warm teen girls' dreams; this one is a creature for your very best nightmares.