Screenwriter Daniel Waters and his director brother Mark have a pretty good claim on the high-school black comedy. Daniel scripted the 1989 comedy Heathers, turning out the lights on a decade of gauzy teen movies by taking an unpitying eye to the high-school caste system and the inflated, often self-created dramas of adolescence. Fourteen years later, Mark directed the Tina Fey-scripted Mean Girls, which took on the same subjects with a softer heart but a similarly sharp eye. A team-up between the two that puts them back on familiar high-school turf ought to have been a sure thing. But Vampire Academy, an adaptation of the first in a series of young-adult novels written by Richelle Mead, is a going-through-the-motions effort so beholden to its source material’s complicated mythology that it never takes on a life of its own. Fans of the books might enjoy seeing their world brought to life, but most everyone else will likely leave feeling as if they’ve just completed a seminar on vampire lore, and they’re likely to fail any pop quiz that follows.
A cheaters’ guide: First, forget what you know about vampires. In this world, there are Moroi, Strigoi, and Dhampir. Moroi are vampire-world royalty, and on the whole, a pretty decent sort, even though Lissa Dragomir (Lucy Fry) begins the film trying to run away from St. Vladimir’s Academy, the exclusive school where Moroi learn to do magic. (They can do that too.) Accompanying her is Rose Hathaway (Zoey Deutch, daughter of actress Lea Thompson and director Howard Deutch, and thus a different sort of royalty in the world of teen films). Rose is a Dhampir, a human/vampire hybrid charged with protecting the Moroi from any outside threats, including the Strigoi, a race of super-evil vampires who mostly look like the guys who get beat up in Jason Statham movies.
Got it? Good. Because it just gets more convoluted from there. The first third of Vampire Academy provides one info-dump after another, sometimes in the form of flashbacks, sometimes via elaborate explanations of characters as they make their first appearance. Watching the film feels sometimes like watching the eighth episode of a TV show while sitting next to its biggest fan.
If only the film provided much reason for fandom. Dragged back to St. Vladmir’s—an institution that’s more or less a cross between Hogwarts and wherever the backbiting kids from Gossip Girl went to school—Rose and Lissa end up amid a lot of intrigue, some of it involving the disappearance of beloved teacher Sonya Karp (Claire Foy), some of it tied to ailing Moroi elder Victor Dashkov (Gabriel Byrne), who charges Rose with protecting his daughter Natalie (Modern Family’s Sarah Hyland). Then there’s Dimitri Belikov (Danila Kozlovsky), a handsome instructor who stirs something in Rose. And Christian (Dominic Sherwood), a brooding bad boy with a suspect reputation, thanks to parents who decided to go Strigoi. And then there’s… well, it goes on quite a bit from there.
The Waters brothers attempt to squeeze a lot of plot and exposition into a feature-length running time—more than it can hold, really. Vampire Academy occasionally plays as if it’s on fast-forward, rushing from one moment to the next without providing much reason to care about what’s happening, or whether Lissa declares what kind of magic she’s going to practice. That’s apparently a pretty big deal in the Vampire Academy world, but the film never makes it clear why. Late in the film, Rose says, “At this point, I can’t remember who loves us and who hates us.” She isn’t alone.
Vampire Academy does manage a few sharp, Heathers-esque lines here and there, however, most of them delivered by Deutch, whose confident performance suggests she has better films ahead of her. Perhaps less frustrating ones, too: Despite its high-school setting and a long, long history of vampires as metaphors, Vampire Academy never finds a way to connect the dots between the two. Apart from some raised eyebrows concerning Rose letting Lissa feed off her during their exile—an activity that sends Rose into what looks like ecstasy—there’s little subtext here, just a lot of backstory and a final act that trots out some unconvincing CGI hellhounds. Or, psi-hounds, to use the proper term. If nothing else, Vampire Academy has a deep concern with getting the terminology straight.