The 2014 film Vampire Academy marks one of the latest attempts by Hollywood to tap into young adult fiction’s vampire subcategory. The Twilight series seemed to suggest this way lay guaranteed box office success. But while Twilight had its strong as well as its weak points (and quite possibly more of the latter than of the former), Vampire Academy was a film so half-baked that the film franchise of this six-novel series crashed and burned with its inaugural outing.
Let’s have a quick look at the premise: Vampire Academy mashes everything you know from Twilight with a setting reminiscent of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. The world and relationships of the characters are those of any run-of-the-mill high school drama, a quite effective if common way of young adult fiction for connecting with its target audience. The franchise wants its protagonists to be vampires and half-vampires (“dhampirs”), not humans. But in order to fall back into well-trodden narrative paths, which apparently need a monster, “normal” vampires (“moroi”) are afraid of the “strigoi”, vampires that have gone over to the dark side.
If you want to know what strigoi are, picture a traditional vampire.
If you want to know how “moroi”-vampires in this franchise behave and what they look like, picture a human. The typical human-vs-vampire narrative is not replaced by something fresh and new, it is merely put into new clothes, and is now a moroi-vs-strigoi narrative.
On that background, Vampire Academy develops a rich cultural tapestry, a back story, and many plots and subplots. However, it is more than a single film can shoulder (always a risk when adapting a novel); and while the main plot (when it finally, and almost too late, reveals itself) is decent, the film is stuffed with too many underdeveloped plot lines.
The fact that too much unnecessary stuff has crossed over from the novel into the film has various negative consequences. First of all, we get no real feeling what amount of time has passed over the course of the film, or from scene to scene. That also means that we never get any real character development, as these developments are jumpy and sudden and established in only one or two sentences of dialogue. Character developments that may make sense when happening over several chapters in a book simply do not work when they appear in two incoherent scenes a mere four minutes apart. Watching Vampire Academy you would assume that Daniel Waters (Heathers) had never written a film script before.
Another result of this film being overstuffed with subplots and characters is that you lose sight of who is who and what is important and what is not. Near the climax of the film, one of the main characters says: “At this point, I can’t remember who loves us and who hates us …” – a sad indictment of the film’s storytelling, delivered by one of its own characters.
For me, however, the two biggest weaknesses of the film are the dialogue and the acting performances.
There are dozens upon dozens of lines in this film that sound like they have been taken directly from the book. They are the kind of lines that may be funny if you read them, but sound goofy and entirely unnatural when actually spoken by a person on screen. If these lines are indeed taken from the novel, as I assume, then Daniel Waters probably saw including them verbatim into his script as a form of fan service. But they are quite horrible, and as the film is already on shaky grounds regarding its tone, these lines topple it. Not that the rest of the dialogue is any better, mind you.
Another major problem is that at times it feels like half the dialogue in this film is exposition. And painful exposition at that. Again, this is a result of this film being saddled with too much information, not all of it necessary. If you want to convey this much information in a film, there is very little alternative to having an awful lot of expository lines. As they said on Cinefantastique’s Spotlight Podcast (no. 5:6): “Never has so much exposition been spent saying so little worth saying”.
The dialogue is also littered with attempts to poke fun at the film’s own genre, in a sort of tongue-in-cheek, wink-at-the-camera way that is painful and fails nearly every time.
As for the acting in this film, it is all over the place. Especially the actors playing the students all seem to have different ideas about what kind of high school film this is and what its tone is supposed to be.
Lucy Fry as one of the protagonists is one of the few positive exceptions. And even she is not up to delivering the final speech of the film which is meant to be impactful (young actresses often have trouble in that particular point).
Dominic Sherwood, who plays some kind of possible love interest, is a good actor, but has obviously been cast as an Edward Cullen look-alike and models a lot of his performance on Robert Pattinson. Which does not suit this film 100%, but is not off by that much either.
Many of the extras are too old to play high school students or look unconvincing in some other way. Sami Gayle is clearly overacting in her role as the school’s “mean girl”, but is easily outdone by Olga Kurylenko’s headmistress who seems to have come straight out of a farce. Claire Foy and Danila Kozlovsky play two further members of the teaching staff, and while Kozlovsky’s accent is tiring, his acting is decent. Foy, on the other hand, plays an eccentric you might expect to find in a Harry Potter film, which does not fit here. Although it is difficult to say of anything that “it does not fit the tone of the film” as this film does not have one distinct tone. Instead, it has many tones, most of them incongruent.
Apart from Lucy Fry, Cameron Monaghan and Sarah Hyland seem to be about the only actors who are able to channel the right kind of school kid for this type of film – even though Hyland’s acting choices are a bit too “bubbly”, again causing some tonal problems.
Speaking of tonal problems: twice the vampire queen shows up at the school, seemingly unannounced, and holds a general assembly for no good reason. She turns up in full robe, with all the state regalia, and talks about some petty school business she should not know about or be bothered by. And the actress playing the queen (Joely Richardson) seems as perplexed about that as we, as she clearly does not know what to do with that ridiculous situation or the witless lines she has been given.
The only actor who brings some experience and gravitas to the screen is Gabriel Byrne. His elder statesman type of role is very well suited for him, and his acting is mostly great. But even he cannot at all times manage to make the script’s terrible lines sound convincing. Yet at least he is a professional who is at all times fully invested in his role, which cannot be said for everybody. It takes a certain class and a certain generation of actor to be ready to deliver his A-game even if the film is mediocre and the script is horrible.
There are, as I said, all sorts of performances in this film. Good, bad, campy; some that are simply tonally off, and some that are struggling to cut through the bad dialogue. The performance, however, that brings this film crashing down, is that of Zoey Deutch playing the second protagonist.
Like many of the other actors, Deutch looks far too old for a high school student (a common problem in high school films). And her acting choices are simply baffling. She delivers most of her lines with an ingrained and not-so-subtle irony which is entirely uncalled for. That way she subverts and sabotages many a scene. All of this is down to the fact that Zoey Deutch is obviously struggling to fathom what tone this film is aiming for. In her case, the result is all the more disastrous as her character also serves as the film’s narrator from the off, and so Deutch is saddled with a lot of exposition, a lot of boring lines, and her voice is just not cut out for that.
The filmography of Deutch suggests that she is a quite capable actress. And that goes for most of the actors who deliver questionable performances in this film (of which, as I have said, there are many). It would have been a great surprise, anyway, if the casting department had managed to accidentally cast only untalented people. So the actors’ mediocre performances did not just happen, they were the result of the creative process as a whole. They were confronted with some terribly scripted dialogue courtesy of Daniel Waters, and then they were struggling to find a common tone. Most of the time when more than two people are on screen at the same time in this film, at least one of them seems to be in a different film than the others. Therefore, in my opinion, the largest portion of the blame has to go to the director, Mark Waters (brother of Daniel). It is his job to get good performances out of the cast, and it is his job to make sure that these performances are tonally consistent. And to anyone who has seen this film it is clear that he has failed.
Vampire Academy is not an entirely horrible film, but it is not satisfying even by the pretty low standards of young adult fiction. It fails in the writing and acting departments, and is so unconvincing as a whole that you never get immersed in the story. You are merely sitting there staring at the screen trying to find out what on earth the actors think they are doing. Vampire Academy is one of those films that baffle rather than entertain. And that is a shame because I assume that the material could have been turned into a quite decent and interesting film. As it stands, Vampire Academy is a 5.0 or 5.5 out of 10 for me. Currently, the imdb rating rests at 5.6.