If moviegoers hear "January" and think "horror," it may have less to do with gore, guts and ghouls than the ordinary New Year's fare (like last year's "New in Town" and "Hotel for Dogs"). But even if darkest winter is the traditional season for burying mainstream movies, it's also a ripe time for genre films - sci-fi, fantasy, horror - which suddenly seem to be drawing top-line talent as easily as they inject fans into seats.
The latest example is "Daybreakers," which opens Friday and stars Ethan Hawke as a vampire trying to save humanity from extinction and vampires from starvation. Created by the team of Michael and Peter Spierig ("Undead"), it's set in 2019, when a plague has transformed a large portion of humanity into bloodsucking ghouls. The dwindling number of mortals means the food supply is running low. Confusing people with catfish, vampires decide to farm the remaining humans to maintain their source of nourishment, while a group of rogue humans seeks a way to repopulate the species.
Co-star Willem Dafoe is familiar with playing a vampire: In E. Elias Merhige's "Shadow of the Vampire" (2000), he played Max Schreck, the real-life star of F.W. Murnau's silent classic "Nosferatu" reimagined as an actual vampire. In "Daybreakers," Dafoe is a human who used to be a vampire. More plausible in "Daybreakers" is Sam Neill's character, who may be a first: a corporate CEO vampire.
Regardless, the futuristic vampire tale continues the mini-trend of January-as-launchpad for such horror / fantasy franchises as "Underworld" and the original "Hostel," as well as the ongoing "After Dark Horror Fest (Eight Films to Die For)" and, just last year, "My Bloody Valentine 3-D." While the quality of the genre flicks that have opened in January is uneven - "BloodRayne," for example, opened Jan. 6, 2006 - this month will feature the ambitious-looking "Legion," another "After Dark" compilation and "Daybreakers," an "old-fashioned, rip-roaring horror film," according to Michael Gingold of the venerable magazine Fangoria, who suggested that the film may provide an antidote to "Twilight" and its sequels.
"It's a real vampire film," Gingold said. "Not some watered-down thing with vampires mooning over teenage girls."
"Twilight" is the elephant in the torture chamber of genre movies - huge but diluted. "Making a PG, no-blood vampire movie is sort of like making a motor-racing movie with no cars," Michael Spierig said from his home in Australia. And yet, having thus far made about $1 billion worldwide, the teen-vamp franchise could help filmmakers like the Spierigs find their actors.
"We always said we wanted an Ethan Hawke type for the lead role," said Spierig. "And we thought, 'Let's just see if we can get him.' His agent liked it. And once Ethan said yes, it changed everything for the film. It opened the doors, so serious actors could get behind it, like Willem Dafoe and Sam Neill."
The idea that "legitimate" actors would do fantasy / horror isn't all that strange (see sidebar). Paul Bettany, Tyrese Gibson, Kate Walsh and Dennis Quaid are all in "Legion," for instance. "You're already seeing this happen with some name actors," said Gingold. "We went through the Gothic-horror phase a few years ago with 'Mary Shelley's Frankenstein' and 'Bram Stoker's Dracula' " - which starred, respectively, Robert De Niro, Kenneth Branagh and Helena Bonham Carter, and Anthony Hopkins, Gary Oldman and Winona Ryder. "Horror doesn't have the stigma it did during the heyday of Hammer films," he said, referring to the British studio that produced the Christopher Lee / Peter Cushing horrors of the '50s-'70s. "Besides, horror provides roles which actors can, excuse me, sink their teeth into."
But the faux-glamour / faux-horror fare of Branagh and Francis Ford Coppola, who directed the adaptations mentioned above, isn't the closer-to-hardcore stuff of the Spierigs, who also tend, like many contemporary vampire moviemakers, to have a socially progressive subtext.
"Anytime you have an exchange of body fluids," Spierig said, not so jokingly, "there's always that theme of disease - an undead movie, zombie movies, anything to do with a plague have something to do with AIDS, cancer, oil. There's always that metaphor."
He said George Romero ("Dawn of the Dead," "Night of the Living Dead") was brilliant at it. "Those films were always quite political. But there's a fine line between being political and being preachy. And you have to draw a fine line between the two. When horror films get preachy, that's when they fail."
And when they successfully marry intelligence to mayhem, the fans - and actors - will keep coming.
PLAYING A VAMPIRE AS A CAREER TRANSFUSION
The horror genre just doesn't have the stigma it did back when Herschell Gordon Lewis ("Two Thousand Maniacs!") and Jack Hill ("Spider Baby") were churning out their blackly comedic exploitation films. But while no one could be shocked that Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe and Christopher Walken have all played vampires, it's still surprising to see some actors baring their fangs. The following are among the oddest:
Humphrey Bogart, "The Return of Doctor X" (1939) - Yes, Bogie played a vampire - of sorts - in this pulp-crime drama about a series of grisly murders committed by an executed physician brought back to life, and subsisting on the blood of his victims.
Catherine Deneuve, "The Hunger" (1983) - Tony Scott's Sapphic melodrama starred the glamorous French actress as Miriam, an Egyptian vampire who bestowed on her lovers the gift of eternal life - until she got fed up with them (literally). Susan Sarandon and David Bowie co-starred.
Tom Cruise, "Interview With the Vampire" (1992) - For a guy whose career seemed so meticulously controlled (before that couch-bouncing episode, anyway), the vampire Lestat was an odd choice that turned out to be a good fit. Featuring Brad Pitt and a very young Kirsten Dunst and directed by Neil Jordan, "Interview" was Cruise's coming-of-agelessness story.
Eddie Murphy "Vampire in Brooklyn" (1995) - Horror master Wes Craven let Murphy do his multiple-character thing, playing both vampire and victims in a movie that was too strange to attract a large audience, and one that awkwardly straddled genres. But it was a trip for Murphy fans.- JOHN ANDERSON