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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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