Like a personal guide through the more dusty shelves at the back of a video store, The Raggedyman uses his experience of scouring the depths of DVD bargain bins to sieve through the old and the obscure so you don’t have to. Take his hand as he walks you through cult classics, underground favourites, forgotten wonders, and new discoveries to let you know if it’s a precious relic still able to grab the eye of the modern viewer or a bit of detritus that it needs to be dumped on the garbage heap of times gone by.
Here’s a question: what do you get if you cross vampires with sci-fi? Well, normally you get a disastrous bit of trash, like the awful Ultraviolet, or the “mostly remembered for the nudie scenes” Lifeforce. It’s probably because vampires are all about being spooky, mysterious, and asking “would you like a shag?” in assorted gothic ways, whilst sci-fi is more about ideas, explaining things, and answering questions that don’t need all your clothes taken off to answer. Still, if anyone was going to have a crack at making a good one, then Michael and Peter Spierig probably had the best chance with 2009’s Daybreakers. They had previously managed to mix zombies and aliens up to the delight of the lumbering dead fandom with 2003’s Undead, and that was in the middle of the zombie revival. Plus they were working in Australia, so they were cheap. Throw in Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, and Sam Neil, and you’ve got a film that coulda been a contender!
The setup itself was pretty interesting, and allowed for some serious fun with the art direction. Eleven years previously, most of the world contracted being a vampire from an infected bat, so now everything is all about avoiding the sun and keeping the red-stuff coming. It’s a Grey New World: filled with low lighting, self-driving e-cars, and brutal state oppression to keep the blood farms running. Dr Dalton (Hawke’s) works in the Big Co Labs, owned by Charles Bromley (Neill), and is trying to make synthetic blood to counter the problems of humans running out and vampires who don’t drink blood turning into deranged degenerate “Subsiders”. He then gets kidnapped by a couple of rogue humans, meets a chap named Elvis (Dafoe) who used to be a vampire but got better, and tries to save the day for humans and vampires before all the blood runs out.
All pretty straight forward and technically well executed, with a good combination of pathos to make you go “hmmmm” and gory bits to make you go “ewwwww!”. Everyone does a good job of their roles, even the ones who are very obviously going to die very soon, and there is just as much poetic justice and deep metaphor being thrown around a fake blood so the 98 minutes of viewing time whips past. The only problem with it is that for all it’s attempts to produce a realistic and believable world, as per sci-fi requirements, all the vampire bits leave a series of escalating questions that just never get answered.
Things start easily with “who is this randomly exploding teenager and why should we care about them?” and “how did a global mono-culture happen in 11 years?”, which you can just ignore. But then you have things like “if all the vamps live in the city, who is keeping this farmland so well kept?”, “how exactly are they keeping the humans alive?”, and “if there is a monopoly on blood, why wouldn’t there be one on blood substitute?”. The question then move onto the blindingly annoying ones of “who thought it was a good idea to shoot humans with darts the size of your arm?”, “why are all the soldiers standing together if they blow up when lightly tapped?” and “what determines how big a vampire blows up?”.
This last question is particularly annoying, because the vampires blowing up is one of the best bits of the film. The Spierigs really know how to sell this particular plot point, throwing in just the right blend of blood, fire, and explosion to make you gasp and laugh as undeads go “fwomp!” for your viewing delights. It happens repeatedly, which is great, and has a consistent rule set as to what causes it, which is also great. But the amount of boom seems to depend on the roll of a dice or plot necessity, rather than any predictable formula. And it’s a weird thing to ask for more predictability when everything else is so painfully by-the-numbers, but it gets frustrating when you are expecting a fifty litre slosher of a crimson fountain and all you get is a fag lighter’s worth of fizzle. At least the battle at the end is a decent bloodbath, with one of the few twists in the film that isn’t announced on a tannoy.
And that’s where the film loses a lot of its kudos: it’s raw predictability. Beyond the “hero will win, day will be saved” inevitability, it’s just got so much signposting going on it gets annoying. Nothing is done without a preceding indicator; no surprise doesn’t have a massive giveaway to it. It’s not so bad that you’ll know how it will end in the first 20 minutes, but you can easily skip to the loo without missing any of the plot you could see coming. It fails to be spooky, it fails to have answers, and the metaphor of trying to be expressed becomes a messy overstatement of “don’t be mean!”. All certainly watchable, you can’t deny it that, but all far more of a giggle along then the creators intended. You’ll be remembering a couple neat tricks and the attention to background details way longer than the story itself, along with all the cool exploding sci-fi vampires, but that’s all you’re getting from this bit of Ozploitation.
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