Vampire Academy shows how terrible films happen to great filmmakers

Vampire Academy should have been a great film. It's based on an addictively wonderful book by Richelle Mead. It was written and directed by the Waters brothers, who separately directed Mean Girls and wrote Heathers. So why is it such a terrible, inept piece of film-making? And what can we learn from it?

Spoilers ahead...

The Vampire Thing.

So probably the first thing that went wrong with Vampire Academy is the "vampire" thing. People, at this point, are pretty sick of vampires, after years of Twilight and True Blood and Vampire Diaries. Vampires aren't just overexposed — zombies are overexposed too, but they keep coming — they're associated with a certain brand of soapy gothic melodrama and a fanbase that's obsessive and (horrors!) mostly female.

So in fact, the Vampire Academy movie compulsively tries to distance itself from the genre it belongs to, throwing in some feeble Twilight jokes and pretending that the "V-word" is some kind of tawdry mislabeling of its noble blood-drinkers.

Vampire Academy shows how terrible films happen to great filmmakers

In fact, Mead's Vampire Academy books are like nothing else out there, despite having the requisite love triangles, angst and misunderstood heroines. For one thing, the core of the first book is a beautiful story about a friendship between two girls, the Princess Vasilisa Dragomir (aka Lissa) and her protector, Rose Hathaway. They're so close that Rose can actually see through Lissa's eyes, and Rose is an angry brawler in Lissa's defense. Lissa is a Moroi, part of the bloodsucking royalty, whereas Rose is a half-human Dhampir. They're threatened by the Strigoi, who are basically Moroi gone bad.

The other core of the first Vampire Academy book is a story about slut-shaming, as everybody suspects (rightly) that Rose let Lissa drink her blood when they were on the run from the Academy for a year. This is the biggest taboo in their society, and Dhampirs who let Moroi drink their blood are consigned to brothels, to become "blood whores," useless for anything but sex and blood-drinking. Soon some boys are claiming that Rose let them drink her blood, too, and she's falsely accused of being the school blood slut.

It's actually pretty intense and weird — and a representation of adolescence that the ever-more-prolific young-adult fiction genre has seldom represented.

Making it a comedy

So the second mistake was probably trying to turn this super-emotional, heartfelt story into a straight-up comedy, and hiring the guys behind Mean Girls and Heathers to make it happen. You can see the logic of doing this: It's a story about girls and bullying, and the Waters brothers are responsible for two of the most famous films in that niche.

The problem is, so much of what's going on in Vampire Academy is really internal, and we really need to be able to feel the inner lives of these characters — especially Rose, who has to struggle with fearing that she really is the person they all think she is. And nothing in the book is simple, as Rose loathes the Moroi snobs but also wants Lissa to take her rightful place among them. If you don't feel Rose's rage, passion and internalized self-loathing, then this story simply falls apart.

Vampire Academy shows how terrible films happen to great filmmakers

In fact, that's what happens — everything in the movie is played for a joke, and instead of having intense emotions that she barely knows what to do with, Rose is played as sort of a young Tina Fey. (With maybe a hint of Ellen Page?) She's constantly cracking wise, and seems kind of detached from all the action around her. Her tragic crush on her hot Dhampir instructor Dimitri, her confusing feelings about her best friend, her social awkwardness — it's all sort of treated as a slightly depressing joke, rather than something keenly felt.

You could imagine the Waters brothers making a brand new vampire comedy from scratch, about vampire mean girls and their pranks that progressively get more deadly — and maybe it would be watchable. But unfortunately, they're stuck with the ill-fitting Vampire Academy, in which the "mean girls" are just part of a larger and more intricate storyline.

It's kind of surreal, if you've read the Vampire Academy book, to watch the movie and see it cycle through pretty much exactly the same plot points — except that they all fall flat because they're played for laughs in a weak fashion.

And that's the thing: The Waters Brothers might have seemed like a good fit for this property at a glance, because "teen girls" and "bullying," but once you glance a tiny bit closer, they start to look like the worst possible fit. Because the brothers' strong suit, their zany irony, only distances you from the heart of the material, the emotional story — and without that heart, the thing is dead on arrival.

Forgetting to make it funny

But even that doesn't really get to the heart of what's wrong here. Because the Vampire Academy isn't funny, at all — not even as a "so bad it's good" film. There are maybe one or two quotable lines of dialogue in the entire thing. The humor feels mostly forced — and worse, as though the characters are as bored with all this as we are.

Here's a sample line of dialogue from the film: "You Dragomirs are all such drags."

Vampire Academy shows how terrible films happen to great filmmakers

And also, the humor is pressed into service to deliver the exposition that the movie is too blasé to deliver in an effective manner. The first ten minutes of the film consist entirely of characters having "As you know, Bob" conversations with each other, interspersed with a painfully bludgeony voiceover from Rose, in which she fills in the gaps. And it never stops — the whole movie is full of bland exposition, gussied up with a layer of snark that's supposed to make it funny.

It's not just that the Waters brothers are unable to convey the complexity of this world without spoonfeeding the viewers information — fair enough, there's a lot going on here. It's also that they don't have any interest in conveying anything throughany other means.

Halfway through the movie, Lissa turns to Rose and says, "You're the impulsive one and I'm the cautious one." As if the movie just realized that these crucial character traits probably hadn't come across at all up to this point. (And they hadn't, sadly.) So the movie needs to explain the characters to us in shorthand.

Vampire Academy shows how terrible films happen to great filmmakers

The clunky humor and weak exposition are actually just symptoms of a bigger problem: the "cliff's notes" scene-setting. Every single scene in this movie feels like the cliff's notes of a proper scene, which might not even be longer but might feature people actually interacting and talking like real people. Every scene consists of the characters narrating the outlines of the scene, rather than actually experiencing the scene. I've seen this in a lot of other bad movies, lately, and it seems to be a symptom of film-makers feeling alienated from their material.

The ineptness doesn't stop there, either — the main actors in the film all seem painfully miscast. I'm sure they're all great actors, but pretty much none of them seems to be able to work with their characters as written. As mentioned, Zoey Deutch seems weirdly detached as Rose, Lucy Fry is sort of anemic as Lissa, and Olga Kurylenko seems unsure whether the headmistress is supposed to be drunk all the time.

Vampire Academy shows how terrible films happen to great filmmakers

Every action scene in the movie is shot in a weird parody of the "shaky cam" style so that you have a vague impression of motion at the edge of the frame. The CG creatures that show up at the end of the movie seem honestly apologetic for their "Lawnmower Man on crack" badness. The whole thing is incredibly choppy, and if any suspense or drama managed to seep in somehow, it would leak out through the massive holes in the scene-setting.

Not respecting the material or the audience

But honestly, none of that stuff is the root of the problem. The root of the problem appears to be a lack of respect for the books, and for the people who love them. At least, that's the message I get from the actual film, which seems to roll its eyes at the whole notion of a fancy boarding school for vampires, or vampire aristocracy, or a secret war against evil super-vampires.

There are two ways of turning this material into a comedy: one is to invest fully in the reality of what's going on, and find a way to laugh in the midst of the pain. (To do Vampire Diaries, basically.) And the other is to treat the whole thing as a flimsy charade, in which no sensible person could possibly care about any of this, and why bother even trying to make sense of it? The latter approach smacks of disdain for the actually-quite-good books, but it's also a surefire way to make a film that doesn't work as a comedy or as a vampire saga.

Vampire Academy shows how terrible films happen to great filmmakers

And that's really the crux of the problem: whether it's the Waters' fault or someone else's, Vampire Academy shows that if you don't respect the story you've set out to tell, then you're not going to succeed in rising above it. You're not going to create some triumphant spoof that transcends the tawdriness of your source. Instead, you'll end up making something infinitely worse, that not only lets down everyone who loved the thing you're mocking, but also fails on its own terms.