9 January 2010

Suck Harder

It's an unavoidable fact of blogging on the latest cinema releases that I will spend a lot of time talking about vampires. The beginning of 2010 throws up two more vampire films for me to have a look at in cinemas- the big-budget Spierig Brothers action-thriller, Daybreakers, and last year's highly acclaimed Korean horror, Thirst. Different in tone, sure, but still propagating one thing- film-goers fucking love those pasty-faced bastards.

As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.

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Daybreakers inhabits the far-off futuristic world of er, nine years from now, when 95% of the Earth's population has been converted into a bloodsucker after the outbreak of a vampiric epidemic. The shortfall of this is that the other 5% is a bit difficult to hunt down, and blood supplies are dwindling fast. Haemotologist Edward Dalton is looking for a blood substitute when his path intersects with Audrey and Elvis, two humans who offer something even better. Elvis used to be a vampire, but not any more, and that suggests only one thing- a cure to vampirism.

The high concept of Daybreakers is a breath of fresh air following more staid and unoriginal interpretations of the vampire legend. This year will see the release of another Twilight film, and doubtless holds a number of other lower profile vampire films I haven't heard of yet. So it's nice to kick the year off with something that's actually trying. The trouble I found with the film is that it's taken that idea and made another Underworld film with it. This doesn't occupy the same universe as Underworld, but it is very difficult to distinguish much between the way they look. That's not to say there isn't a lot of thought put into other aspects of the film, especially in the implications of a world that is almost entirely vampiric.

Coffee stands sell beverages that are four parts coffee and one part blood, news reports make mention of forest fires being started by infected animals who go out in the daylight and a "subwalk" system runs beneath the streets so vampires can go out and about in the daytime. All of these details embellish a scenario that has clearly been well thought out by the Spierig brothers. I'm not familiar with their work, but apparently they're bright young things in the horror genre. Their first mainstream feature musters a number of reliable actors, with Willem Dafoe continuing to be memorable just by being Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill making an all-too seldom appearance and Ethan Hawke doing that relative naivete/reluctant saviour thing that has especially prolific in most films like this since The Matrix. Also of note is Isabel Lucas, not for her acting because that's still rubbish, but because while she's still not that hot, she at least looks like a human being without scary levels of tan and pouting.

Beyond what you've probably already seen in the trailers, Daybreakers doesn't bring an awful lot of originality to the table. Its high concept and attention to detail make it mercifully closer to The Twilight Zone than to Twilight, but the plot deals in a number of slightly tired devices and goofy twists rather than sustaining the promise of the original concept. If you love vampire films, you may well love this. Personally being a bit tired of them at the moment, I don't think there's much to remark upon in this reasonable but familiar piece.


Elsewhere, world cinema is once again proving there's life in the idea yet. Thirst is the latest horror film from director Chan-wook Park, and follows Father Sang-hyeon, a Catholic priest who volunteers at a local hospital, as he attempts to cure an incredibly debilitating virus. In the process of his research, he contracts the virus and dies on the operating table. However, the doctors unwittingly provide him with transfusions of vampire blood, and he's resurrected. The virus will keep returning unless he drinks the blood of other humans, and the man of faith finds himself on a course to self-destruction as long suppressed desires reawaken.

The very title should give you some idea of the film's central theme. Sang-hyeon is as pious as they come, and he's put in a position where he thirsts after human blood without wanting to kill anyone. The priest's desperation is palpable in the excellent performance by Kang-ho Song, who undergoes a transformation from looking a bit like Harry Potter to being a cool, confident creature of the night. Song's performance really stands out amongst an excellent cast, with Ha-kyun Shin, as a childhood friend of the priest who irritatingly parades around with his snuffy nose and wearing a green onesie like a giant baby. His wife Tae-ju, played by Ok-bin Kim, is driven away by his behaviour, and into the arms of the sexually-awakened Sang-hyeon. Their relationship dominates much of the film, and their dynamic is what makes it distinct from other vampire films.


Some will compare this to the other vampire film that came out of world cinema last year, the excellent Let The Right One In. The major difference is that Tomas Alfredson's film is just about the only vampire film ever that isn't about sex on some level, instead centring on two young children. Thirst is very much about sex. Chan-wook Park knows better than to glamorise vampires, or to sanitise them for a teenage audience. Make no mistake- this is an absolutely brutal film, but it's the sense of right and wrong that distances it from mere smut. There are some incredibly grisly bits in this film that aren't related to sex, and though I'm not one to swoon over a bit of fake blood, some bits of this one had me looking away involuntarily. There's a story beneath the horror though, and a very compelling one at that. One of the few drawbacks is that Park is quite breviloquent in his pacing, which paradoxically makes the film drag a little bit. It feels a fair whack longer than it actually is, and I wonder if it might have left more of an impression on me if it were even ten minutes shorter.

For the most part though, Thirst boasts a very interesting and innovative application of the vampire archetype. Kang-ho Song gives one of the best performances of the last year, brilliantly evoking the sense of repressed power that Park's screenplay demands. The idea of Catholic ideology clashing with vampiric necessity is arguably a much more intriguing idea than Daybreakers has to offer, and it's handled more competently too. This was my first experience of Chan-wook Park's work, with other reviewers applauding this for being more restrained than his previous works, like Oldboy or Lady Vengeance. I remain very interested in catching up with those, because Thirst exhibits his original sensibility for horror. More than that, it's a film that compounds the emergent truth about vampires on film- world cinema has superseded Hollywood in the sub-genre.

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Another month, another coupla vampire films. On the plus side, I heartily recommend Being Human, the second series of which starts on BBC Three tomorrow evening at 9pm. Vampires, werewolves, ghosts and most importantly, brilliant writers and actors, if the first series is anything to go by. You can probably count on a review of The Road later this week, but in the meantime, why not add to the raging torrent of vampire discussion on the internet by commenting below? Preferably about the films at hand, not who would win in a fight between Lestat and Edward Cullen.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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