My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately, inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.
I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping to be a contender. The first of Richelle Mead’s series, one whose title helpfully requires zero work on the reader’s part to divine just what it is all about, was published in 2007. The sixth instalment came in 2010, and the series has sold over eight million copies, so I guess it deserves to be labelled popular.
The school setting obviously takes a leaf out of Buffy’s book (I know, vampires weren’t really attending school in then series) but, since it’s the also part of the Twilight vogue, I’m sure there were ready sources of inspiration for this vampire education all over. And, you know, the kids can relate. Mead’s take has half-breed (not actually vampires) offspring of humans and vampires (Dhampir) acting as guardians for the (good) vamps (Moroi). Which seems like it’s the wrong way round, but what do I know? The Dampir also have magic abilities (which is handy), able to control the four elements (only one each though, I believe). There are also bad vampires (the standard sort, before Anne Rice came on the scene), Strigoi, who are undead and drink blood.
Rose (Zoey Deutch, daughter of Lea Thompson – Marty McFly’s mum – and Howard Deutch – director of, er, Some Kind of Wonderful) is a guardian-in-training, Lissa (Lucy Fry) is the Moroi princess (vampires have royalty, of course) she protects. They have a strong bond, but only a lesbian one unless you’re keen on Vampire Academy fan fiction, and Rose is able to experience the latter’s thoughts. Which sounds like a recipe for Whedon-esque whip-smartness but mostly flounders. Lissa meanwhile can bring the dead back to life; rules are up for grabs and any shit goes.
The movie almost surprises in the first instance by starting mid-story (and avoids extended flashbacks), with the two girls on the run, but can’t take credit as this was part of the novel. That might encourage the picture to feel very “busy” but it’s also because neither Waters is able to focus on the main story until quite a late stage; there are threats to Lissa’s life, school bullying, an Angel-esque smouldering older love interest (Josh Hartnett-alike Danila Kozlovsky as Dimitri) for Rose and an age-appropriate one for Lissa (Dominic Sherwood as Christian).
The pervading sense of familiarity may be part of the reason this one didn’t catch on, although there are more particular problems in execution. The leads are desperately poor shows, particularly Deutch. She fails to bring a lightness of touch, stumbles through her witticisms and fails to sell herself as best buds wirh Rose and romancing Dimitri. I don’t particularly want to be hard on her; her mum’s a great actress and her dad, well he directed Some Kind of Wonderful. Fry seems to be concentrating so hard on her perfectly aristocratic RP accent she forgets to put in a performance. As a result, it’s hard to tell how much of this is down to Daniel Waters’ script; no one is able to carry the dialogue.
Well, no one central. There are some decent thesps on the periphery; Olga Krylenko has fun as a disciplinarian headmistress, Gabriel Byrne cashes the cheque but that’s still more value than most can muster, Joely Richardson gives it some amusing regal and Claire Foy does dotty. The best of the youngsters is Sami Gayle as chief (school) antagonist Mia, but she’s the only one you could imagine holding her own in Heathers (Sarah Hyland is also good as the geek girl concealing a really pretty girl as if you didn’t notice, but she’s more Clueless).
Generally, one would expect better from the combined forces that brought us Heathers and Mean Girls. The school setting doesn’t have enough bite; a wicked streak is required but it feels passé, more Harry Potter with spot of blood licked off walls than “Fuck me gently with a chainsaw”. As noted, Academy threatens to become interesting (only threatens) when the plot kicks in during the last twenty minutes. But that’s nothing to do with the teen-angst-bullshit-with-a-body-count plot, which is the opposite of what you might reasonably expect (before which there are a series of twists, none of which take much to guess). Little of the dialogue sticks in the mind, aside from “She writes Twilight fan fiction”. Which only serves to highlight that Vampire Academy has a cheek trying to come over all superior.
Daniel Waters’ work on Heathers and Hudson Hawk made him the skewed humourists to watch in the early part of the ’90s, and he at least made Batman Returns the most peculiar movie in that franchise while Demolition Man became a likeably random Stalloner. His work here feels indistinct, though (the reverse of Sex and Death 101), strictly a bill-paying job. As for brother Mark, I never pegged him as a great, but he was at least a competent hand; Mean Girls is well observed, and he also showed a surprising flair with kids’ fantasy The Spiderwick Chronicles. On paper he doesn’t seem like a bad choice, but everything about the execution is off. The action is leaden, while the staging and cinematography shouts TV movie on a number of occasions.
That the Weinsteins produced this may explain everything. For every picture of theirs (and this was also true of their former Miramax) that gains plaudits and garlands there are many more where Harvey Scissorhands couldn’t resist butchering it in the blinkered (since he never has, in all his many meddlings) belief that he could improve it. It’s alleged that Harvey had Vampire Academy cut down to the essentials, which would explain a lot; I’m more inclined to give Mark Waters the benefit of the doubt than, say, David Ayer for the messed-up Sabotage, but Academy comes unstuck with the leads and deteriorates from there.
As always happens when Harvey gets his chubby mitts on a movie, he eviscerates it, loses interest, and then dumps it to die a slow disinterested death. The legions of the devoted have been trumping up a crowdsourced sequel but I’d be as dubious of that as the announced City of Bones one. Which led to the much more likely avenue. Bones has been announced as a TV series and, if Vampire Academy has a chance of adapted life beyond the limits of this misfire, that seems more likely. Lacking in wit, miscast and mangled, this pretty much what you expect from Weinstein pictures that aren’t aiming for Oscar glory, and also from a good few of them that are. The teaser poster warned “Prepare to be tested”. It was right.