Starring Zoey Deutch, Lucy Fry, Danila Kozlovsky, and Gabriel Byrne
My rating: ★ star
The kind of movie you watch through your fingers because you’re cringing with embarrassment for the people involved.
Vampire Academy tells the story of Rose Hathaway (Zoey Deutch, daughter of famed producer Howard Deutch and actress Lea Thompson), a half-vampire, attending a boarding school for vampires. Her purpose is to protect her best friend, Lissa Dragomir (Lucy Fry), an important member of a mortal vampire race, from the attacks of the evil immortal vampires.
I’m a sucker for this kind of movie. I like teen movies. I like vampire romances. I like series with extended narratives. I’m not one of those people who scoff at these movies out of hand. I went in to Vampire Academy wanting to like it. And, yet, I couldn’t enjoy it on any level. It’s not a good movie. It’s not a movie I enjoyed while recognizing its flaws. It wasn’t even a so-bad-it’s-fun time waster. It is just unredeemably bad.
The first level of failure of any movie is the script level. It’s rare that a movie that starts bad on the page ends up good on the screen, and Vampire Academy is no rare exception. It suffers from its origin as the beginning of series as opposed to having a source novel that is complete in itself. The best entries in film franchises have complete narrative arcs in addition to the ongoing story of the series. The goals of the protagonists are simple, and the stakes are clearly defined. Survive the Hunger Games, otherwise death. Keep Voldemort’s minions from getting the Sorcerer’s Stone, otherwise Voldemort will come back, which would be bad (for reasons the script clearly delineates).Vampire Academy has no such simple goal/consequence structure. The heroine Rose must protect her friend Lissa or…Lissa will be in danger. It’s a circular, unsatisfying goal on which to hang a movie, and it raises the question of why Rose is the main character if Lissa is so important.
Even if the central structure of the script is weak, sometimes the individual pieces can still work, but that’s not the case here. The construction of the scenes is odd. I would like to get a look at the shooting script because I would bet the individual scenes would average about a half a page. Few scenes are more than 30 seconds long and even fewer extend beyond a minute. The shortness of the scenes prevents any development of character and any meaningful interaction between characters. It gives the film a sense of being rushed. And it wastes money of the film’s obviously limited budget. Instead of having a new set-up every thirty seconds, the film could have spent more money developing fewer scenes. It’s as if the filmmakers were loath to skip any of the source novel’s scenes for fear of angering the book’s fans; they would have been better off condensing scenes to better convey the spirit, rather than the letter, of the book.
The film, despite its recreation of the scenes, departs utterly from the tone of the source material. For reasons that I can only begin to guess, the film is written like a comedy. There may be humorous moments in the source material, but it’s not a comedy. It seems to me that screenwriter Daniel Waters is showing contempt for the source material by trying to camp it up into something that resembles his own biggest success, Heathers, rather than staying true to the tone of the novel, which is serious, in a young adult fantasy fashion.
Daniel Waters’s brother, director Mark Waters, exacerbates the tonal problems by directing the film as if it were a television comedy. He has the actors deliver the lines as if they were written in the set-up followed by joke pattern of a sitcom. The overall performances he gets out of his actors have the superficial, cartoonish feel of a sitcom, as well. The rhythm of the scenes also suggests a comedy. And, if the material were actually funny, that might work.
But, at its heart, the movie is not a comedy despite the best efforts of the Waters brothers to make it so. I get the sense that the brothers valued the project so little that they thought the only way to make it successful would be to turn into some kind of cult comedy.
The film gets better as it nears the conclusion, which is the reason I’m giving it a single star. Despite the attempt of the Waters brothers to mold the material to suit their vision, the film shows moments of the original material’s tone and spirit breaking through. Here, we find the few longer scenes where the characters are allowed to be serious, and we see flashes of the world that novelist Richelle Mead created. I’m not one of those people who believes a film adaptation has to recreate its source material exactly, but, in this case, the film would have benefited from a more straight-forward, respectful recreation. The Vampire Academy novels were successful as fiction and spawned a successful spin-off series. By taking what worked from those novels, the Waters brothers might not have created a cinematic masterpiece, but the film might not have been the disaster it is.
When the captains of a cinematic Titanic are so determined to drive it into an iceberg, it’s hard to blame the passengers for the sinking. However, Zoey Deutch, although not responsible for the disaster, manages to make it worse. She’s on the wrong boat, horribly miscast in a role that calls for an actress more like Hailee Steinfeld, someone tough and determined, not flip and sarcastic. Deutch overplays every moment with exaggerated facial expressions, making her performance painful to watch. I hesitate to be too harsh in my criticism because she may be a victim of a director who thinks he’s at the helm of a sitcom.
The performer who comes off best is Danila Kozlovsky, who plays Rose’s mentor/love interest Dimitri Belikov. He’s the only one who plays his role straight, not comically. He may benefit from the fact that the director knows that, even in comedies, the guy with the Russian accent has to be completely serious. Sadly, Kozlovsky and Deutch have no chemistry. We know the characters are attracted to each other because the script comes right out and tells us, not because of anything we see on the screen.
The best known actor in the film, Gabriel Byrne, does nothing to elevate the film, mailing in a performance through bad make-up.
The bad make-up is not Byrne’s fault, but rather a symptom of the limited budget and haste with which the film was made. The setting looks like a fifth-rate Hogwarts, and director Waters fails to milk any sense of place out of what he has to work with. The effects can’t even be called fifth-rate. Better special effects can be found on The CW. Even the fight scenes look cheap, as if the film couldn’t afford decent choreographers, stunt people, and camera set-ups.
The film could have compensated for its limited budget by avoiding expensive effects in favor of better cinematic technique. Better lighting could have masked bad make-up. Better editing could have covered limitations in filming. Avoiding effects for more creative solutions would have been superior to having special effects that look laughable. But the filmmakers betray a lack of care in failing to mask the cheapness of the film.
This movie didn’t have to be bad. It didn’t have to be laughably, painfully bad. I feel sorry for novelist Richelle Mead because her efforts didn’t have to be immortalized in something so awful and misguided. I feel sorry for the fans of the book series, who won’t get to see something they enjoy being brought to the screen. I wanted to like this film. I wanted to find something, anything, in it to like, and I feel sorry that I couldn’t.