“[O]ver the years, these vampire movies have come out and vampire TV shows and stuff like that, and you go, ‘Well, nobody looks like a vampire, man. What happened?’”
– Johnny Depp, Mtv interview promoting the film version of Dark Shadows, 13 October 2011
You don’t need me to tell you how much it can suck to be a female fan of sci-fi/fantasy. I’m a guy – you shouldn’t be listening to me anyway, you should be listening to what women say about the subject. From near-incessant harassment and threats to always having their credibility questioned and never having their ideas taken seriously; being a “fangirl” means being in the crosshairs of a bunch of arrested developmental boys who constantly complain about being harassed and not taken seriously.
Most condescending of all is the gender-specific labeling products in the genre. Women get things that are pink, uncomplicated, and specifically catered to romantic melodrama (because “All the feels!”, amirite?). Men get… everything else. If a big-budget studio tentpole film performs below expectations, it’s the fault of women for not responding to the romance. If a project with a female lead or premise fails, it’s because “no one wants to see things about girls”. When a toyline originally designed to be gender-neutral decides that it will finally make a gender-specific line, the boys get action-oriented products; the girls get make-up and fashion. Because boys, y’see, are about keeping their eyes on the prize; girls just wanna complicate stuff.
And this even extends to our popular monsters. If you’ve been alive the past decade, you’ve no doubt noticed that vampires have been so watered-down that they scarcely resemble their horrific namesake. From the dawn of the 20th century they’ve been associated with decadence and the bourgeoisie, but now they less resemble the hidden menace of decadence and pander to the Gossip Girl crowd.
I haven’t read Richelle Mead’s first Vampire Academy novel, but I’m told it eschews most of these conventions in favour of a personal – if a bit convoluted – story about a friendship that is both literally and figuratively strengthened by what is not said. When put in the hands of Heathers writer Daniel Waters and Mean Girls director Mark Waters, I wasn’t expecting something too complex. But I hoped these two would use the novel as a jumping-off point with which to turn their razor-sharp satirical skills on the bloodless vamp craze; a Starship Troopers for the sparkly vamp crowd. With guys this smart, how bad could it be?
Rose (Zoey Deutch) and Lissa (Lucy Fry) resemble the sort of students you’d find at most any boarding school. Lissa was guaranteed a spot due to her royal lineage, whilst Rose had to work her way in. The two share a bond that outsiders can only speculate about. The only unusual thing about them is that Lissa is vampire and Rose is damphir. Such is the case for everyone at St. Vladimir’s Academy.
When they aren’t fantasising boys studying for exams, they’re both living in fear of the Strigoi – an evil race of vampires that want only death and destruction. When (relatively) strange events begin occurring, it’s up to Rose to keep Lissa safe.
As I look at my notes from last week’s screening, I see that I stopped writing notes 3/5 of the way into the first page. In fact, the last thing I wrote were the phrases “ABC Family Channel” and “wannabe Diablo Cody”. That about sums it up. This movie is so horribly derivative, you’d think it came from a Mad Libs book of vampire movies. Every line of dialogue – that is not hyperbole, I mean EVERY line – is an exposition-dump that never takes the time to build characters or scenarios. The visual effects are occasionally passable, but mostly cheap. The acting is wooden and the dialogue is, as my note suggests, full of badly-written quips (not helped by the fact that actress Zoey Deutch strongly resembles Juno actress Ellen Page). Just as The Last Airbender failed to compress its source material’s first season into a two-hour film, so too does Vampire Academy fail to make any of its complex backstory compelling.
And it’s a damn shame, given the pedigree. With the Waters Brothers behind the camera, one would hope for a certain sense of self-awareness in the story to give it life. Rather than a bunch of Seltzer/Feinberg plagiarising of others’ work, this film could have been to modern vampire movies what Galaxy Quest was to Star Trek (and science fiction as a whole): well-versed enough to where its jabs are pointed, but knowledgeable enough to show a great affinity for the source material. Instead we’re given yet another entry in a played-out genre.
There are some great underrated vampire flicks, like The Hunger and Near Dark, which break from the traditional vampire movie aesthetics whilst keeping both the monstrosity and the humanity. This is not one of those films. This being the first in a book series, I’d advise any possible sequels to make narrative and stylistic breaks from this entry. Otherwise, just pop in Dracula: Dead and Loving It, which is by no means a comedy masterpiece, but it’s occasionally funny and made by people who understand what they’re spoofing.
My friend Cody once described this as “the greatest vampire musical ever written”. I have yet to hear a compelling argument to the contrary.