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Katheryn Bigelow’s clever, mostly successful postmodern take on the vampire mythology opens with a nice bit of misdirection. Caleb, our pretty-boy protagonist, is goofing around with his crew of country fellas outside a Southern bar when they notice Mae, a lovely young lady awkwardly hanging out by herself. Caleb calls dibs and approaches her, standing in shadows and making small-talk come-ons. This being a vampire movie, there’s every reason to suspect she’s his next victim: he even mentions how he won’t bite. She’s aloof and shy, playing the soon-to-be-victim to the hilt.

This, it probably goes without saying, is not how things shake out.

Mae is in fact part of a crew of modern-day vampires, who travel the countryside feeding at night and sleeping during the day in various holdouts. Unlike many incarnations, these vampires are neither sexy nor anguished – they’re a lot more like a tight-knit outsider group committed to self-preservation, a gang. They have protocols to follow and internal hierarchies and long-standing grudges. And they really, really like having a good time, in their fashion – tormenting bar patrons (in the film’s best and bloodiest scene), drinking heavily, committing strategic arson, and playing good-natured games of Russian roulette in hotel rooms (since this can’t kill them, it’s just for a laugh).

Mae turns Caleb, much to the chagrin of her comrades, who (rightly) don’t think he’s made out for this life. The rest of the film follows his change, the group’s adventures, and Caleb’s bewildered family’s desperate attempts to track him down. One particularly effective sequence, finding humor in the notion of modern-day vampires, finds Caleb in a bus station, unable to function as his humanity is drained away and replaced by something darker; he’s all sweat and callow flesh and bloodshot eyes. A cop interrogates him, naturally, about what drugs he’s on.

The film is shot in half-light (or is it near dark?) almost from start to finish, maybe suggesting the creatures’ dual natures or, alternately, Bigelow’s conviction that it would look cool (if the latter, she was right). Both Lance Hendrickson and Bill Paxton give nice, occasionally frightening turns as murderous borderline-psychotics who also happen to drink blood, and the kid from Teen Witch continues to be unsettling, though in a less hornball fashion this time. There are also some really well done set-pieces, like a house in which they’re hiding getting shot up and allowing light to come through, noir and/or Blood Simple-style, in criss-crossing rays, any one of which can painfully light the vampires on fire. They huddle together, deathless villains cornered by the day.

Refreshingly, there is no complicated back-story to explain these creatures; they just are, and apparently have been for many, many years. This allows Bigelow to treat the film as a crime movie with bloodsucking monsters, rather than an entry into increasingly convoluted mythologies. It’s way more fun than brooding versions like Herzog’s Nosferatu or Dreyer’s Vampyr, for instance, even if it falls, let’s say, a bit short on their artistry. The film’s conclusion is a cop-out, I think, and way too sentimental for everything that preceded it. Unfortunate, since there are a number of other directions they could’ve chose for the climax. On the other hand, everything that preceded it was pretty enjoyable.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans will also have fun picking out the substantial number of things Whedon borrowed: the blacked-out car windows, for instance, or the gag of running through the sun with a blanket over your head. I’m not sure if these little touches have earlier instances; if not, Whedon owes Bigelow some major credit.

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