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‘Vampire Academy’: It’s Just About High School

Some of the seams of the vampire / teenager connection are starting to show.

Vampire Academy appeared earlier this year to a giant yawn from critics and fans alike. Although film writers certainly summoned the energy to berate it, they mostly responded with utter boredom. Audiences (the film had a built–in audience, based as it is on a book series of the same name) seemed baffled by the overstuffed plot.

A small and naïve number of us came to this with moderate, if not high, expectations. Mark Waters, best known for the brilliant 2004 Mean Girls directed this film that seemed to promise us a supernatural sister to that classic. Meanwhile, screenwriter Daniel Waters, the director’s older brother, wrote the infinitely quotable screenplay for the cult favorite Heathers, a film that put the macabre at the center of valley girl culture and used it to critique conformity and materialism.

This genealogy led me to hope for the ideal mixture of goth girl teenage angst and subversive bloodletting. Instead, the PG-13 rated Vampire Academy mashed up Buffy the Vampire Slayer with Harry Potter and a dash Veronica Mars. This might sound appealing but the result is little more than a misguided imitation of these influences.

Perhaps its simply a matter of cultural exhaustion with vampires. Maybe the reign of the zombie has truly begun and the walking dead will brook no pretenders?

Or, more likely, some of the seams of the vampire/teenager connection are starting to show. Paranormal metaphors of high school have perhaps lost their tang, even for high schoolers.

The Waters brothers center their tale on St. Vladmir’s, the eponymous “vampire academy”, that essentially functions as a vampire Hogwarts. In this mythos, Moroi are mortal vampires who can practice magic and only take blood from willing victims. They are guarded by half-human guardians known as Dhampir who protect them from a merciless and evil breed of blood-sucker known a the Strigoi. Rose Hathaway defends Lissa Dragomir, a princess of one of the Moroi royal bloodlines.

Water’s screenplay sometimes shows some snap, especially in dialogue. Although this is not Heathers, there are occasional flashes of smarts, most delivered by Zoey Deutch as Rose. Unfortunately, there are also lines like, “All that training and still I’m going to obliterate you.” and “I may be dead. But I’ve never felt so alive.”

Failings also appear in the plotting and the casting. The books apparently offer readers an enormous backstory that the film more or less hurls at us.Combining this with a sizable number of characters and an overstuffed plot makes the narrative obscure. Worst of all, the last scene essentially announces a sequel, an unlikely (and, for many viewers, unwanted) possibility.

Moreover, the story managed to include every single cliché of YA vamp fantasy into 90 minutes. Unattainable and age-inappropriate love interests, vampire kung fu fights, distant adults with shadowy agendas and learning magic as a metaphor for adolescence, all make an appearance. I kept waiting for a forbidden werewolf/Vampire romance, but a Moroi and half-Strigoi coupling takes its place.

Casting selection appears to have been done with an Abercrombie catalogue, as is the case with many a paranormal teen romance. Other than Deutch, no one really shines here and after certain point the rather large cast of characters become indecipherable. Gabriel Byrne appears in a role that’s actually central to the narrative but he has perhaps less than eight minutes of screen time.

Extras include an alternate opening that might have worked much better than the theatrical release as it packed more exposition into three minutes than the current cut of the film succeeds in providing in more than an hour and a half. Other deleted scenes are mostly short extensions of material that appears in the film. One cut, sadly, contains what might have been the only genuinely funny scene in the flick.

Bonus features also include a discussion with author of the Vampire Academy book series Richelle Meade. Meade’s comments focus on her view of the relationship between her work and the film. This is not especially interesting and will be unlikely to move you to read the books. It runs under three minutes and, not surprisingly, Meade tells us that she hoped to explore the “theme of adolescence” with “deep and emotional content”.

“You’re making this about high school and its about something more.” Rose tells Lissa at one especially Dawson’s Creek moment of the story. Perhaps that’s the problem with the latest films iterations of the YA genre and supernatural fantasy. Joss Whedon took a story about vampires and high school and turned it into a modern legend. Since Twilight, teen vampire fantasies have collapsed into a series of high school metaphors and clichés that simply cannot hold the culture’s interest. Despite Rose’s special pleading, this is really just all about high school.

RATING 4 / 10