Sunday, January 31, 2010

Vampires In Culture - VMP230 - Section 1

Welcome to Honors Zombie: Vampire Studies. If you're looking for Professor Tyree’s class on Mummies, it's down the hall. Ho-ho, I do have fun. I hope everyone had a good break. This semester will de dedicated to studying vampire films and the way they've shaped and fit into our culture. We'll be taking a look at the very first feature length vampire movies and then moving up through history to see that the makers of vampire films have been at the forefront of cultural trends (mainly and fittingly the standards of sexuality and obscenity becoming more and more lenient by the day) and though I don't think they are as crucial as zombie films, try explaining that to everyone else! The last year has been an incredibly important one for vampires (those fucking Twilight movies most apparently if unimportant as genre films are at all concerned) because they've been host to a number of very interesting and capable filmmakers looking to test the waters of the horror genre. Park Chan-Wook, Tomas Alfredson, David Slade and countless others have turned to vampires in just the last few years and the previous decade was the scene of a full-on Vampire renaissance if you'll allow me to be so bold. So we're going to hit the most recent entry in the pantheon and then we'll go back and take the whole mess of them by force, because as Hunter Thompson once wrote, "If the things worth's worth doing right."

by the Spierig Brothers
Well apparently I'm not the only one who's had it with Twilight and everything those neutered teen/housewife/conservative friendly vampires stand for because the first thing we see is a preteen girl (or someone who looks like a preteen girl) write a suicide note then sit outside as the sun rises. She is burnt to death before our very eyes. Well that's certainly not the most appealing opening to any film I've seen but it did drive a few people out of the theatre on opening night, so clearly our auteurs want the tweens to take it on the Arthur Duffy. Yes, as you may or may not have guessed this is a slightly more cynical view of society than we ordinarily get. Taking the take-no-prisoners attitude of 30 Days of Night and applying it to the rest of the world, Daybreakers envisions a world in which vampires came, saw and conquered. Human beings are on the ropes, living in secret, while Vampire inhabit giant cities, run the government, operate coffee shops, work in office buildings, have their own television networks, program cars to protect them from sunlight and live in gated communities. In other words they're people today except they're actual bloodsuckers. This has led to some problems - kill enough people and you're bound to run out of blood and the Bromley Marks Corporation, one of the world's largest blood farms, is feeling the recession in their wallets. CEO Charles Bromley has been searching for solutions to the problem and to that end he's asked Edward Dalton in R&D to come up with a substitute. Dalton's come close but his latest attempt had the rather serious side effect of literally blowing up the test subject while the investors looked on.

Driving home after a day's worth of dead ends, Dalton gets into a minor scrape when he notices something in the camera system that operates as his flip-down mirror (no reflection, ya see). What he sees in his mirror is evidence that he hasn't been eating enough human blood - those who go without (called Subsiders) develop Kurt Barlow syndrome and look like the spooky wall-climbers who used to haunt the nightmares of little children. The first symptom is pointed ears which Edward's managed to develop since he doesn't believe in drinking human blood if it can be avoided - what I like to call a Sunday vegetarian. He's so busy looking at the ears that he almost plows into a car full of human beings. If he didn't offer them shelter from the approaching police they almost certainly would have killed him but he does and while waiting for Dalton to ditch the fuzz, the lead human, one Audrey Bennett sneaks a look at their saviour's personal information, things like what he does for a living and where he lives. She sneaks into his house later to tell him that a substitute ain't gonna cut it and that if he's looking for a cure she should meet him outside the city limits on Wednesday. It's there that he meets Elvis Cormac who used to be a vampire but now walks about in daylight free as a bird and he's been helping refuges with Audrey ever since. Elvis accidentally crashed his modified antique Chrysler and flew through the windshield into a pond, but not before the sun cooked him alive for a few seconds - when he resurfaced, he was human again. Dalton's gotta figure out how it works and if he can reproduce it before Bromley's security force finds him and the refuges and puts a stop to their work and the last of the human race in the process.

There's a lot more going on in the film than what I just described but it isn't totally crucial and though important in getting everyone in the same building for the conclusion feel a little tacked on. There are subplots involving Bromley's daughter, Dalton's little brother, a senator, one of Dalton's co-workers and a crack-down on Subsiders but ultimately that stuff doesn't have much to do with the story proper. In a round-about fashion I'll get to why the subplots don't concern the main action. Ok, so our directors, still going by that most unbecoming of screen-names The Spierig Brothers (Peter and Michael), have made a lot of improvement since the last time we tangoed, their debut, the 2003 zombie crime Undead. That movie was quite awful but apparently someone at Lion's Gate didn't think so (those fuckers, despite the few great films that come bearing their logo every year, have also given us every Saw and Tyler Perry film thus far, which makes them financially smart and morally reprehensible). Anyway, that Daybreakers is made by two basement dwelling teenage boys is immediately apparent. First of all the movie is, I believe, supposed to take place in the United States? Maybe? I don't know that but I do know that Daybreakers was shot in Australia and nearly everyone in it is Australian, Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe and Christopher Kirby, who funnily enough was in the remake Salem's Lot on American television from 2004, the exceptions. The names in the script are all Australian (you know many Americans called Jarvis Bayom or Colin Briggs or Joy Watkins? it's not that they couldn't be American names but it's just clear that these were the first names they thought of: Frankie Dalton, Bromley, Barrett, etc. They're just all-Australian names and most of them are played by Australians). Why the Spierigs either couldn't hire Americans or set their film in Sydney is anybody's guess but there it is.
The other thing that outs our directors as teenaged boys are the asides into illogical, the-bad-guys-have-terrible-aim action territory. These are fun to watch, sure, but they make nothing like sense. People sneak up on each other despite being in open fields, cars explode when their drivers are killed, sometimes exploding vampires knock those in proximity into walls sometimes they just disorient them; in other words continuity disappears for the sake of a nicely executed shot. Then there are the moments that seem to crop up in every third action film, yet still get written into screenplays like when people are continually and 'unexpectedly' shot as someone new enters the room. My dad's theory is that if you're a kid making low budget films in his hometown and Lion's Gate gives you a bag full of cash, you'll either give them their stand-by set-pieces or you do it anyway because you think that's what people want to see. The film's loaded with action movie clichés to the point that the thing Daybreakers most reminded me of was not a post-Blade revisionist vampire film but a graphic novel brought to life. If you remember that you're watching a comic book everytime adults talk like teenager's conception of adults or the action becomes ridiculously over-the-top and gory, it becomes easier to enjoy Daybreakers. And for those of you seeing your first Spierig Brothers film, let me remind you that shotgun-crossbow aside, this is a major step up. They remind you that you're still watching their movie when they blow vampires up or or paraphrase Day of the Dead (I wonder if Sam Neil ever thought he’d end up tied to that chair when he started acting) execute vomit-related jolts and slow-motion burnings but when you factor in just how awesomely shitty Undead was, it's almost impossible to think of the same people making something as good as Daybreakers.

For all my complaints (which I think are more than justified) Daybreakers does an awful lot right. The world that the Spierigs created is a truly bizarre and really excellently designed place. The clash between dreary modernity and colorful kitsch is an interesting (if not particularly rational) choice and the Spierigs find really intriguing ways to remind us that they've thought out every aspect of their vampire's existence. The cars daylight driving function and solution mirrors, the various ways they've concocted for vampires to walk around during the day, the blood-coffee stands in the subwalk, combined with the malt-shop attendee uniforms that stand employees wear, the Frank Miller-type characters who show up in the form of corpulent detectives and hour-glass secretaries and those antique cars Elvis drives and you have one of the least conventionally designed films of the last year or so. In fact the world is so cool that the plot can't measure up to it. the subplots feel perfunctory and don’t have much to do with how the film ends and many of the film’s best elements go unused. The dialogue is largely terrible and broad and stolen from other movies; could you really imagine the situation where you'd write an argument where someone says "are we really going to have this conversation"? I was greatly looking forward to a clash between the security force and the Subsiders but twenty or so minutes before the film ends, the Subsiders completely disappear from the action; a major bummer. It feels to me that you’ve created a whole world, why not make better use of the neo-noir possibilities you’ve laid the foundation for? And though the action sequences don't make a lot of sense, they are fun enough and the same goes for the pseudo-science and all of Willem Dafoe's dialogue. The cinematography is great especially the difference between the cold interiors of Bromley Marks and the dusty winery where Dalton races to find a cure. The editing and plotting move even if subplots arise every few minutes and before long the film is racing towards its fairly satisfying ending. I enjoyed the anti-capitalist switcheroo moral and though it raises more questions than it answers I like the solution to vampirism and the scenes where they test it out. The Spierigs even manage a few quite exquisite shots, my favorite involving soldiers in the lobby of Bromley Marks.
The vampire movie's been around since pretty much the beginning of commercial cinema and the action movie too and after almost a hundred years of both you really don't have an excuse for a subpar example of either and Daybreakers makes up for its run-of-the-mill plotting with its meticulously crafted design and, as far as I know, original ideas on the subject. Is it as good or innovative as Thirst or Let The Right One In, films that make you appreciate the creativity required to bring something new to something as time-worn as the vampire movie?  Is anything? No, not in my estimation, so that in mind I still rank Daybreakers as one of the more successful vampire films of the decade and I certainly rank it above the likes of 30 Days of Night (though they get equal points for their distinctive look) or Underworld (not really hard, but still) and worlds more entertaining than those fucking Twilight movies; jesus I fucking hate those films. I had fun and that's not something I say often after watching modern day vampire movies and that's about as great a reccomendation I can imagine giving a film with the line "Being human in a world full of vampires is about as safe as bare-backing a five-dollar whore".

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