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Vampire movies miss their 'John Wayne' moment

January 10, 2010 |  8:50 pm

Day In their heyday, Hollywood westerns were famous for their ability to attract moviegoers even when they weren't t trying very hard. During the fertile period of the 1950's, the genre extracted hits not only from acclaimed, enduring material such as "High Noon" and "The Searchers" but more degradable cultural monuments like "The Cowboy and the Prizefighter, "Moonlighter" and the classic of every self-respecting DVD collection, "Trigger Jr.", a Roy Rogers concoction about a killer horse.

There are plenty of creative similarities between the mid-20th century western and the modern-day vampire film, with their shared focus on a lone outlier's fight for justice, the culture-clash between a seemingly enlightened majority and primitive natives and other ideas that are the stuff of graduate-school theses. Like the western, the modern-day vampire movie of course also both attracts and creates some of the era's biggest stars (though we'll stop short of calling Taylor Lautner this generation's John Wayne).

But even as the vampire film, like all genres that go through a renaissance, continues to flower and fracture into variants (the latest is Ethan Hawke's "Daybreakers," which gives the category a refreshing survivalist spin by turning the vampires into everyday Americans in search of sustenance), it's falling short in that key respect -- getting people to notice more than just the A-list titles. It's now fair to ask if, outside the very particular case of the "Twilight" franchise, any other vampire movie will become a hit, let alone a phenomenon.

The modestly blood-drawing performance of "Daybreakers" at the box office this weekend gives further voice to the claim — the Lionsgate movie was the biggest wide-opener of the weekend and did well enough given its costs, but had a fourth-place finish, a weak Cinema Score rating and earned a not-overwhelming $15 million on 2500 screens.

Way Since the supposed vampire revival began several years ago, no non-Twilight film (and there have been plenty) has come close to breaking out. "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant" was an unabashed failure. "30 Days of Night" had one decent weekend and faded faster than a bloodsucker at sunrise. A more auteur-driven attempt, "Thirst," couldn't even muster $500,000 at the domestic box office this summer.

All failed to register the resonance or receipts that similar vampire movies did in other periods friendly to the form — not only the salad days of the  "Blades" and "Underworlds" earlier this decade but even the campy films of previous generations, such as the 1979 George Hamilton spoof "Love at First Bite," which earned more than any of the current non-Twilight films.

In fact, other than "Twilight," no vampire movie in the current revival has even earned $40 million. (Unless it enjoys a miraculous surge, "Daybreakers" won't change that.)

We suppose it's OK for the trend to thrive mainly on television and elsewhere in pop-culture. And when it finally and mercifully wraps up, the "Twilight" films alone will have made practically as much money as entire standalone genres.

But resurgences  are supposed to lift derivative and spin-off properties too, and in such a way that we even forget a little why we like the conventions and just accept them as cinematic fact. To be considered a thriving category, you need not only John Wayne and Gary Cooper but Roy Rogers and his horses too.

— Steven Zeitchik

Photos: "Daybreakers" poster, Credit: Lionsgate; "The Searchers" poster, Credit: Warner Home Video

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Comments () | Archives (18)

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Daybreakers was amazing- I will gladly see it again! http://bit.ly/3B1JlG

Last I checked, I AM LEGEND was a vampire movie that made $256M domestic. Just saying.

It would be really nice if someone would make a movie from one of Amanda Ashley's romance novels, something romantic and not full of blood and gore.

I see your point, but you are clearly to involved with yourself to effectively evaluate this movie. You're annoyed with vampire films. I get it. Now try to be an objective critic as you are paid to do.

Maybe because a simple gross falsification of history is easier for most of us to take as pure entertainment than a falsification of science, reality, probability, human nature, and more or less everything else.

Mr. Thalberg:

No wonder your movie studio's in trouble. I am Legend was a ZOMBIE movie, not a vampire movie. Big difference. Just saying.

@Jon K: be an 'objective critic"?? huh? kind of an oxymoron, don't you think?

The point that most anylists are missing is that Twilight's real draw is the romantic chemistry of its two main characters a battle of lust verses possesion, it really unlocks a masacistic side of our subconcious. The books and the movies are not so much vampire films as they are great love afairs, or is it lust?

I think the problem was a misconception on the studio's side: It's not Vampires that are popular, it's "Twilight" that was popular and anything that's remotely similar to it. (And there's another popular Vampire movie, Interview with the Vampire made around 220 millions back in 1994, and the Blade movies did average business, I think.)

If they made more Interview with the Vampire type movies I'd watch 'em.

The comparison between the 50's western craze and the modern vampire one doesn't work well because the economic model is different. Westerns were often produced cheaply and featured as 'B' titles on a double feature bill so there was already a built-in audience. Today, the audience has to WANT to show up for the feature, good or bad. As well, the problem with comparing Twilight to Daybreakers is that you're comparing romantic tweeners to older gore hounds, not the same crowd. Most of these lower (and higher) budget horrors look to make their money back on DVD. Personally, I'm sick of current vampire flicks so if I'm in the mood I'll go back to the Hammer ones.

The vampire phenomenon isn't just limited to films. Don't forget 'True Blood' on HBO and 'The Vampire Diaries' on the CW. In a way vamps seem more popular on TV.

I think part of the problem is that executives all supposed that it was the vampire element of Twilight that was the draw, but in Twilight, the vampires aren't even all that much like vampires. They're a neutered, non-threatening version, or like Cordelia Chase would say, "care bears with fangs." The draw of Twilight for all those tweens (and sadly, middle-aged women as well) was the love-for-all-eternity storyline between Bella and Edward. I doubt it would have mattered if Edward was immortal in some other fashion. In fact, it probably would have been off-putting for the fans if Edward had behaved like a real vampire.

Even the Vampire Diaries, while at least sporting some honest to goodness vampires, is still predominantly a draw for the love story. So it's not that surprising that this uglier, more violent (and in my opinion infinitely more interesting) version of vampires is not raking in the big bucks of the Twilight movies. Wish it was.

Let's be accurate about a few things. I Am Legend is NOT a zombie film or book. The book was about vampires and the film deals with a BLOOD cure for the vampiric citizens.

Daybreakers is poised to due decent box office after this weekend and this does not count foreign box office. And, that is my next point. When researching this article foreign box office was not taken into account. 30 days of Night made $75,304,357 worldwide. That was in 2007. Well above the $40 million figure cited.

I also think the point is missed about vampire films or horror films in general. They are not usually phenomenons like Twilight. They lack huge stars and are usually based off the concept. And, they are the number one consistent money making film. Be they vampires, werewolves or serial killers.

If you think about it, the vampire film has never really left the public consciousness since Nosferatu. Every single decade the vampire makes appearances in big and low budget films. They don't really need a "John Wayne" moment. They are here to stay.

This article doesn't make sense. Where is the "lone outlier's fight for justice" in Twilight? I don't understand how anyone can compare the westerns from 50 years ago to the vampire movies that are out at the moment. Its like you had to try and think of some way to say you hate vampire movies, and this is the best you could come up with.

Bob is right, what about True Blood and vampire diaries!!! First one is one of the most successful dvds from 2009, second one is the most successful show on CW! The vampire trends has nothing to do with proper vampires or big budget movies. It's about relationships, romance, drama and mysticism. I dare to say it's even closer to the soap opera trend. Vampire (or werewolves) are hyped because of the sexual charisma. Who cares about the story in Twilight? It's about beauty, muscles and good haircut of the cast! Same for Vampire diaries.
True Blood is in a different league but it's still a highly erotic show (as " the Interview with a vampire " movie). Vampire movies go blockbuster when there is the sex (or no-sex!) tension.
When it's horrorlike movies, they are just a new flavour of villains. In "I am a legend", they are kind of in between zombies/ mutant / vampires. And in my concern, far less interesting. "I am a legend" is a cool movie but thanks to Will Smith, not the CGI creatures!

Its not the Vampire Films are anything new, they've been making them for aprox 100 years and true vampire film fans will always go to them whether they're gore-fest or not. The recent spat of all things vampire has been due to Twilight ROMANCE alone (im backing Kate on this one). Also the vampire with a heart and seeking rededemption story is nothing new either, can anyone say Nick Knight. So your premise that the Vampire phenomenon is at a end, is completely inaccurate. Its just a sign od any discerning cult group interest in all things vampyre will be returned to the true fans of vamp stories and we will shed the stigma of Twilight and its billion horde of fans.

what about anne rice and the vampire chronicles??? i read a few of those in high school and their really not that bad, much more story and depth than twilight will ever have
also, there is no reason why anyone should ever compare twilight and John Wayne, you might as well compare Clint Eastwood and Michael Cera.


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