November 24, 2008

A Skeptic Develops A Thirst For The Twilight Kool-Aid

Six months ago I wrote a column for AMC exploring my doubts that Twilight would be anything but an abstinence-porn cocktail of cotton candy and AXE body spray. This resulted in a wonderful conversation with Twilight Lexicon administratrix Laura Cristiano, in which I was urged to give the books, the fans, and the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt. Thanks to the input of Laura and my other interviewees (including one of the film's stars) my column wound up being far less dismissive than what I'd set out to write -- but I still wasn't about to line up for my own Dixie cup full of spiked O-negative.

It always surprises me when I actually follow up and do my homework (probably because I never bothered even when I was in school). I wound up reading the books this summer, surprised at how quickly I was sucked in, but thoroughly astonished at what I was reading. I could go on for pages in lit-crit mode, examining the arena of sexual politics faced by young Mormons and detailing the thematic similarities to lesbian erotica from the '60s (those "Twilight Lovers" of yore) but I'll spare you. Mostly I think I kept reading to see how author Stephenie Meyer would escape the corner she'd painted herself into. Pretty soon she's going to have to admit that she's writing a horror novel, I thought, or else pull the cop-out of a lifetime. Sure enough, the fourth book legitimately turned my stomach with its ruthless depictions of suffering and rivers of gore. You go, girl! I cheered, queasily. I have profound respect for authors who let neither themselves nor their readers off the hook.

So, now this movie has come out, and it's sort of the world's responsibility to deal with it amidst our holiday plans and extreme wariness of maximalist hormonal entertainments. I went to see it tonight, surrounded both fore and aft by giggling regiments whom I could tell were mostly there to mentally lap up Robert Pattinson's three-story cheekbones and poke each other in the ribs whenever a new character appeared onscreen. Not just characters -- we're talking damp gasps of gleeful recognition even when the name "Forks" (the town Bella moves to as the opening credits roll) was mentioned for the first time. But I could barely summon the energy to shush anyone. After all, I wasn't the outsider I'd set out to be. I was now complicit.

And you know what? As much as it pains me to say it as both a grouchy snob and a devoted horror fan, I'm really impressed with the final product. I'm no apologist -- the exposition is almost unendurably sluggish, and the running/leaping special effects feel utterly Stone Age, and the "edgy" Guitar Hero soundtrack that unnecessarily underscores most of the film will age more like fresh milk than fine wine. But almost every plot-wrinkle produces a new compulsively watchable actor, and before long you find yourself surrounded by incredibly vivid characters who are thinking and feeling their world with unabashed honesty. The chemistry between Edward and Bella dares you to temporarily stow your cynicism in the crusty Thermos that one carries around just for such occasions, and if you can take that dare you'll leave the theater with a little less of it than you came with.

That suspension of disbelief is especially important for horror fans, because the final quarter of the film takes a promisingly savage turn. The violence -- both real and implied -- is a cold reminder that the gauzy bubble of Vaseline-lensed limerence that these characters occupy will not protect them from the stark truth that they are, in fact, in a vampire movie. And it contains a veiled promise that the ensuing sequels are going to be a lot harder for little girls and their puff-paint-sweatered moms to stomach. When I interviewed Clive Barker about The Midnight Meat Train, he admitted that he was blown away by how violent the movie was; when we read (or write) books, our imagination has a way of glossing over the parts we don't want to confront. The sight of Twilight's villain crushing a girl's leg like a paper cup hurt me more than I'd anticipated, and if Catherine Hardwicke is still running the show by the fourth movie (she'd be crazy to give it up) then we're going to have a real white-knuckler to look forward to.

I'm happy to be able to report that the Twilight movie is greater than the sum of its parts -- or just great enough. Thoroughly decent. Totally watchable. These may sound like faint praise, but they're so much more than I ever thought I'd have to give. And that's not coming from a hater with dismally low expectations -- I think I had higher expectations than most. I'd opened myself up, through my interviews and through reading the books, to the possibility that this movie would both move me and scare me, which it did despite its many flaws. I'm a root-for-the-underdog kind of guy, but let the record show that even I can switch caps and root for the juggernaut occasionally, as long as the team has real verve and keeps the Kool-Aid flowing.


Anonymous said...

Thanks man for the review I enjoyed reading it. I was pretty much identical to your response. I got dragged to see it three times now but hey for some reason the third time I was actually looking forward to it.

Jewel Allen said...

It's great to see a review about its merits as a horror movie. I heard from a male friend that he was surprised how much he liked it. Sounds like they made it appeal not just to the die-hard fans but to those that like a good action flick, too.

Anonymous said...

I am glad to see someone else feels the way I do about not only the movie but the book series. Your review lined up with alot of my feelings about the film. I am a devoted horror fan and I picked up the first book like 6 months ago to see what it was all about and if it lived up to my vampire lore love, and surprisingly it did, especially the last book's gore. The end violence of the film I was also impressed with and excited about. The final fight scene with James satisfied my thirst for vampiric violence that should accompany any horror movie.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the awesome review!! It was great to hear your perspective of the film and books :) I agree with everything you had to say and hope the next series of movies that are coming out are daRk and sexy! Yum, Yum