A latecomer to the vampire party, "Daybreakers" probably felt fresher when filming began back in 2007. That was before HBO's "True Blood," the tweenermania of "Twilight" and last year's young-adult movie "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant" - all of which stole some thunder from this otherwise enjoyable genre flick.

Set in a near future, when vampires rule society and harvest the remaining humans for blood, "Daybreakers" centers on a benevolent vampire named Edward Dalton, whose rumpled hair and wounded eyes belong to Ethan Hawke. Working as a researcher for the conglomerate Bromley Marks, a kind of undead GlaxoSmithKline headed by Charles Bromley (Sam Neill, great fun in fake fangs), Dalton is trying to create a blood substitute. Instead, he winds up joining a renegade army of humans; Claudia Karvan plays the attractive one.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Directed with dark panache and written by brothers Peter and Michael Spiereg, "Daybreakers" has a surprisingly good sense of humor. Subway commuters sip Type A lattes at the crack of dusk; Dalton adjusts his necktie in a mirror that reflects only an empty suit; one vampire laments that people never trust him (he's a politician).

The film unravels when Dalton meets Lionel "Elvis" Cormac, a rip-snortin' renegade played by Willem Dafoe as an aging Duke of Hazzard. Cormac leads Dalton to a shock-cure for vampirism, but it's disappointingly simple (hint: it involves sunlight) compared to the rest of this fairly inventive film.

Even a year ago, "Daybreakers" might have landed atop the vampire curve. Instead, it's been held back a grade.