Sweet Sassy Molassy: “Vampire Academy” Review

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So, it’s been a while, guys. Over a month in fact. I’ve been slacking. To be perfectly fair, post ideas have scampered across my mind on occasion, only to be defeated by something more important, like starting/paying for school or dramatically less important, like binge-watching Netflix until it does that thing where it asks if I’m okay and if they should send help. But no more! I am turning over a new leaf! And by “leaf” I mean “frozen tree branch”, since I have forgotten what leaves look like. (Totally Unrelated Fun Fact: “Turning over a new leaf” refers not to plant-life, but to pages of a book, literally “turning the page” in one’s personal story. Believe it or not, I was in high school before I found this out. English language, ladies and gentlemen.)

On that note: Vampire Academy. It is at least 68% against my nature to have shown any interest in this. My brief obsession with vampire ended in a four-year fit in which I wrote and published a (not terribly impressive) novel about vampires in response to the baffling “Twilight” phenomenon. After that, it promptly fizzled. My lukewarm reception to high school movies fizzled somewhere during the time I was in actual high school and nobody came along to turn me into Rachel Leigh Cook. Between the two, a high school vampire movie should sound like the blandest thing from Blandville. What did attract me, however, were two things, and they’re both named Waters. Vampire Academy is directed by Mark Waters (notably having directed Mean Girls and The Spiderwick Chronicles, less notably Mr. Popper’s Penguins), who blew us all away with his brutal lampooning of bitchy high school girl culture AND reminded us that Lindsay Lohan had really nice boobs. The screenplay is the work of big brother Daniel Waters (notable for Heathers and Batman Returns, less notable for Hudson Hawk), who wrote one of the best dark comedies the grand ole 80s had to offer. So let me rephrase that: the director of Mean Girls and the writer of Heathers got together for a film about high school girls and vampires. You can see the appeal, and if you don’t, you probably were never a 16-year-old girl, to which I can only say, you lucky bitch.

I did expect the movie to be entertaining at the very least, and corny at the very worst, but in fact it reached for a higher bar than I expected. The second-to-lowest bar of entertainment is something which makes you interested in what has happened in the present moment you are watching/reading/hearing it. (The lowest, if you’re wondering, is the stuff you reserve exclusively for background noise while you do your homework or write blog posts.) Vampire Academy made me at many, many points care about what was GOING to happen, actively making me want to continue watching. This is more rare than it seems. How many times do you flip on the TV and turn it off at some point to go eat dinner and don’t particularly care that you missed the end of the episode? This was a case where I wanted to see the end – or at least the next 20 minutes.

The story centers around two girls, one a vampire (Moroi, if you want to be specific, but it’s the same idea) and the other a Dhampir, a half-vampire I think since it was a little vague on this concept, who is born and trained to protect the Moroi. The story begins with them on the run and being dragged back to the place they’d run from…school. The Vampire Academy in question, real name St. Vladimir’s. Not making this up. The Moroi, besides being bloodsuckers and generally benign people, are also trained in magic, with each individual stating a variety of magic to work and continue training in: either earth, air, fire or water. Kind of like Benders who drink blood from willing participants in a “cafeteria” that looks upsettingly like a communal hospital room. Still not making it up. The bad vampires in the story are the Strigoi, and they are something more like the traditional scary vampire, big fangs and red eyes and all. Moroi Princess Vasilissa Dragomir (I know) seems to be stalked by some malicious someone or other, while her novice Guardian, Dhampir Rose Hathaway, must solve the mystery and keep her from going nuts and hypnotizing the entire school into thinking she’s cool and pretty.

It’s admittedly a weird, convoluted plot, made more obvious by trying to explain what the hell was going on after the fact. Part of my interest in seeing it was that I have never read the books it was based on, and since that’s unusual for me, I was curious to see how coherent it would turn out to be without that background knowledge. The answer is, kind of coherent but difficult to dissect. The plot is ore complex than it is allowed to be, making general sense but having the feeling of perhaps one or three too many extra components bogging it down. There was a general feeling of extra fat, like there should have been some way to streamline the thing. I do understand it, however. It combined a bunch of mythology and characters and subplots and STILL had to make it accessible for the audience members (i.e. me) who were unfamiliar with the YA books. It’s a lot easier to fit exposition on a page than on  screen, I believe, and this is a big place where the movie fell short. Trying to balance narrative and exposition and still keep things moving along resulted in a bit of a tangle. It could certainly have been a big, gloppy mess, however, and NOT have had its saving graces, of which there were several.

The casting of relative unknowns, as far as mainstream film is concerned, was a big help. There was never a sense that any one performer was being treated differently than the rest, and the performances were generally pretty understated, which worked nicely with the relatively relaxed, conversational script (something it’s worth noting that Daniel Waters is good at, along with quippy one-liners). The one exception is the laughably hammy Joely Richardson as Moroi Queen Tatiana, who swallows the scenery whole and everyone in it, to hilarious affect – made more hilarious when SPOILER ALERT Lissa shuts her DOWN in a scene toward the end. It’s not clear whether the hilarity is intentional, though, and perhaps I’m biased in my dislike of Joely Richardson in general when I say that I doubt it. Zoey Deutch is refreshingly snarky and takes some serious names in the kicking ass department, but her performance is so toned down that at times, it almost seems she’s improvising, as though somebody took her off the street, stuck her in a room, and told her to have a chat with all these people wearing funny coats. (A vampire flick is not a vampire flick without a costume designer who REALLY likes cool jackets. The costume design was actually a place I thought was lacking. I don’t care if it’s a school for vampires or not, NO school board approves uniform skirts that short. However, I doubt it’s all that objectionable unless you’re like me and notice what kinds of socks people are wearing.)

What I liked most was that it combined all the things about a movie like this that I expected – teenagers, angst, bitchy girlfriends of personality-less ex-boyfriends, a prom, and of course, quippy one-liners – but it didn’t shy away from the things that make vampire movies good, either. There was blood. There was the aforementioned ass-kicking. There were weird CGI wolves with colors-changing eyes. There were unexpected villains and sexual tension. There was Gabriel Byrne in old-age make-up, which isn’t a vampire flick staple but could be if filmmakers had a little more imagination. If your prime motivation for seeing a teenage girl high school vampire movie is to be entertained, you’re probably going to have a pretty decent time. It’s not perfect. It’s not even a little bit perfect. Nobody is going to win any awards here. But luckily for the movie, the good parts – the entertainment part of the deal – outweighs the bad. If you’ve been depressed about the lack of body count in high school movies and there are only so many times you can watch Jawbreaker (where, it should be noted, only one person dies as opposed to >15, which is where I lost count), then the likelihood that you’ll enjoy Vampire Academy are pretty high. My suggestion? Grab some cheerful, like-minded friends, sneak some Ben & Jerry’s in your backpack, and spend an evening together enjoying a fun, bloody, and surprisingly self-aware teenage girl high school vampire movie.

Also, can we talk about the pop/dance cover of the classic “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” that plays during the credits? Because it is AWESOME.

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