On a couple of vampire movies

This weekend I watched the film Daybreakers, which I enjoyed more than I thought I would. I think it’s interesting, which isn’t the same thing as saying I think it’s perfect, but I would rather watch an interesting film with some aesthetic missteps than one whose only flaw is that it doesn’t take any risks.

The idea in the movie that vampirism is something that would spread quickly through a population (when the film begins, 95% of the world’s sentient population is already vampiric, and no longer refer to themselves as human) reminds me of one of my favorite vampire movies, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr, from 1932. A portion of that film (which is of the sound era, but has so little dialogue that whenever anyone speaks it seems like a special effect) involves the reading of on-screen diaries that provide information on the nature of vampires. Here’s an excerpt from one of those diaries (as rendered in the screenplay that comes with the Criterion edition of the movie):

Woe to the young woman held in the grip of the monster. The physical and moral tortures that result are unspeakable. She can foresee her damnation, she cannot escape it, she struggles, she succumbs, she herself becomes a vampire, she chooses new victims from her immediate circle, who also succumb. It sometimes happens that an entire family, even an entire village, is devastated by this plague.

And another:

Twenty-two years ago, in this very country, a mysterious evil descended on the village of Courtempierre.

In a single week, there were eleven victims. The sign they all bore (a small bite mark on the throat) set off a search for the vampire responsible. The old people of the village remembered a rich and cruel woman who was so diabolical and suspect that upon dying she was refused the last rites. Her name was Marguerite Chopin and she was buried in the Courtempierre cemetery. They decided to open her tomb. But the one who was charged with piercing her heart was found lifeless near the coffin; he had not accomplished his task.

Since Vampyr takes place in rural France, it can float the idea of vampirism being highly contagious without having to concern itself with the spread of the infection to urban areas; Daybreakers takes that idea to its modern-day logical conclusion. Another thing the movies have in common is that in both, vampirism is an implied consequence of a combination of moral depravity and class privilege (in Vampyr we have the backstory of the woman who effectively is cursed into vampirism because of her wealth and cruelty; in Daybreakers vampirism is figured as the defining trait of a corrupt corporate culture, to the point that vampires dress like characters from Mad Men even though the movie is set in the year 2019. And the viewer is introduced to Ethan Hawke’s vampire protagonist through his image in a car’s side mirror, where he is, literally, an empty suit. Humans in Daybreakers, on the other hand, appear to have access to a secret cache of film-language working-class signifiers like leather jackets, jeans, and tank tops). Finally, in neither film is vampirism romanticized much—especially in Daybreakers, it’s made clear that living one’s life as a vampire is a generally unpleasant experience, a matter of penance for sins rather than of mere immortality.

The end of Daybreakers sets up for a sequel—that’s kind of a shame, since I have a feeling it won’t get one, and for a reason I can’t put my finger on, the film as it stands doesn’t feel entirely complete to me: the conclusion has things that traditionally happen at the ends of horror movies, including plot twists and lots of gore and violence, but in spite of that it somehow doesn’t provide a satisfying sense of an ending. But it’s a movie I can see myself noticing more things about, and changing my mind about, during a re-watch.

Finally, a public-domain version of Vampyr is on Youtube, though the DVD is preferable since it features Criterion’s usual meticulous remastering. And a computer monitor is the wrong place to view it—it’s visually stunning, with a number of clever practical effects and surreal images (in those respects, you can see its strong influence on Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula). It won’t work its magic unless you watch it on a television, in darkness.

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