The career highlights of brothers Mark and Daniel Waters—Mean Girls, directed by the former, and Heathers, written by the latter—are also pinnacles of female-centric high school satire. Those reputation-making films sharply observe social behavior in a confined school setting, while also adding a heaping dose of incisive humor. In securing the siblings’ combined talents, the producers of Vampire Academy—an adaptation of the first book in Richelle Mead’s young-adult paranormal romance series—were clearly intent on playing up the high school aspects of their bestselling source material, perhaps hoping to distinguish this vampire story from a glut of others. Unfortunately, there just aren’t enough scholastic scenes for the Waters to sink their teeth into.
During the first 10 minutes, Rose Hathaway (Zoey Deutch) lays out Mead’s mythology through voiceover. She’s a half-human, half-vampire Dhampir—a guardian novice sworn to protect Lissa Dragomir (Lucy Fry), a member of the mortal, royal vampire group known as Moroi. After several years on the run, the two are captured and returned to St. Vladimir’s Vampire Academy, a school where the Dhampir train to guard and the Moroi develop magical abilities. For Mead’s creations, daylight is uncomfortable but not deadly, and there’s no sparkling. That’s part of a valiant yet ineffectual attempt—coupled with the Balkan and Romanian terminology—to frame Vampire Academy as a more thoughtful genre entry than Twilight. The Dhampir protect the Moroi from Strigoi, the immortal, bloodsucking, castle-dwelling caste. These are the bad vampires, the ones who can’t walk in sunlight and who choose the undead lifestyle instead of being born into it.
When the Waters brothers get a chance to focus on the everyday teen aspects of their material, Vampire Academy nearly transcends that familiar paint-by-numbers YA feeling. (The single classroom scene in a film explicitly set within a boarding school offers echoes of the filmmakers’ previous successes, while scenes of school-wide gossip fleetingly drain the film of pomposity in favor of actual, melodramatic fun.) But this is a paranormal romance above all else, and as such it swings wildly between plot threads and thematic focal points. One scene focuses on protecting Lissa from a deadly serious threat, or an impending invasion from supervillain outsiders. The next depicts royal-succession intrigue, Rose and Lissa suddenly growing apart as popularity rises and falls, or the two leads befriending the daughter (Sarah Hyland) of a longtime family friend (Gabriel Byrne). And all the while, Rose makes the subservience of the Dhampir to the Moroi sound like selfless and dutiful behavior, when it actually reinforces the kind of social hierarchies observed and critiqued in Mean Girls and Heathers.
Even Deutch’s talent for delivering witty one-liners can’t ground the film—especially given that she’s been romantically paired with Russian actor Danila Kozlovsky, who adds a touch of unintentional hilarity as Rose’s brooding older instructor. (He looks like he stepped off the cover of a paperback romance novel and sounds a bit like Tommy Wiseau.) Because this is only the first big-screen take on a six-novel series, a fair amount of material exists simply to telegraph potential sequels. With these scenes added, there’s even less room for actual fun in this mostly bloodless, supernatural tale of boarding-school gossip. At one point Rose tells Lissa, “Don’t judge a book by its content,” but Vampire Academy is toothless in both substance and style.