Just as the ‘Harry Potter‘ franchise begat a number of costly imitators that failed to catch on (just think: “Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events,” “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” “Cirque du Freak“), so too will the unstoppable ‘Twilight‘ franchise breed countless would-be successors, each with some kind of otherworldly overtones and always with star-crossed lovers that defy the odds to be together (hello, “I Am Number Four“). Earlier this month we had zombies-in-love lark “Warm Bodies” and now we get “Beautiful Creatures,” which transplants the Pacific Northwest setting of “Twilight” for the earthy Deep South and swaps that series’ emphasis on vampires and werewolves for some much-needed attention to witches. Also, it’s the kind of movie that heavily features not only Civil War flashbacks but also modern day kids participating in Civil War battlefield recreations. I do declare!
“Beautiful Creatures” starts out with a striking dream sequence, wherein our main character (and narrator) Ethan Lawson Wade (Alden Ehrenreich), meets a mysterious young girl, dark hair obscuring her face, in a field. There’s clearly a supernaturally magnetic connection, with Ethan being drawn towards this girl he’s never really met. Lighting strikes the earth and he awakens. In voice over, Ethan explains what’s happening in real life: he’s about to start his junior year, a voracious reader who is looking to get the hell out of his podunk town of Gatlin once he hits college. His mother recently died in an automobile accident and his father has sequestered himself in his room, refusing to leave.
On the first day of school, he meets a new girl, Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), who looks uncannily like the figure from his dreams. She seems a little off, especially by Gatlin standards – she’s got a tattoo on her hand, has skipped pastel-colored clothing altogether and has a curtain of dark hair covering her face. The other kids make fun of her because she’s part of a family known as the Ravenwoods, led by a dandy shut-in named Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons, stretching out his r’s like warm saltwater taffy), who lives in an old plantation home that looks like the Haunted Mansion in Disneyland. Still, the attraction is there, even after Lena rebuffs his attempts for friendship and, later, reveals some Carrie-ish telekinetic tendencies during class.
The early sections of the movie are really wonderful – they ooze atmosphere, thanks in large part to the lush production design and warmly hued cinematography by frequent Tim Burton collaborator Philippe Rousselot. A number of nitty gritty details about the South are captured lovingly and accurately – the gentle hum of cicadas, which serve as a kind of underlying soundtrack, the way that everyone drinks Dr. Pepper, and the kind of off-handed chivalry that’s inherent to southerners on an almost genetic level. Spanish moss hangs mournfully from the trees and vines entwine every building, old or new. In fact, sometimes it feels like one oddly shaped merkin away from being a season four episode of “True Blood.” Why season four? Because of the witches, of course!
Yes, young Lena (and the rest of the Ravenwood clan) is a witch, or in their words, a “caster.” When she turns 16, she will be “claimed,” either for the light (meaning she’d become a good witch) or for the dark (meaning she’d be a bad witch). Different factions of her family want her to go a certain way, because she is terribly important (not sure why) and can be responsible for the casters either continuing to live in peace (and in secret) with the humans or leading them to cruelly taking over the world (or something). Her mother, a bitchy, bodiless spirit named Sarafine, who has inhabited the body of a local bigot (played, in a wonderful dual role, by Emma Thompson), is pressing her to join the darkness, while Macon, all dolled up in Tom Wolfe-esque ice cream suits (warlocks love linen separates), and Amma (Viola Davis), a kind of voodoo priestess librarian who wears gold eye shadow, urge her to claim the light. Heavy shit for a girl turning sixteen.
And this is where the movie sputters to a halt – as it progresses, the emphasis sways, away from the gooey-eyed romance between Lena and Ethan, which borders on, if not genuinely compelling, than at least mildly diverting. Instead, the movie becomes entangled, like all of these stories and movies do, in an unnecessarily cumbersome amount of back story and “mythology,” parceled out in giant chunks that add to the movie’s bloated two hour plus run time. There are casters and the claiming and the curse, which we’re still not sure we totally understand but it has to do with a magical locket and a Civil War battlefield (we guess), resulting in two Civil War flashback sequences and a prolonged scene where teenagers are reenacting the battle, which means kids point muskets at each other. Fun. Much of the wonderful texture of the movie is lost, replaced instead by sequences where Lena locks herself in the witch library and does endless studying (yes, seriously).
The second half of the movie has its moments, like the introduction of Ridley (Emmy Rossum, in full-on vamp mode), Lena’s sexy cousin, a “siren” who was chosen for the darkness and who gets many of the best scenes (including one in black-and-white). “Beautiful Creatures” should also be given mad props for engaging in all the metaphoric possibilities of its subject matter (unlike “Twilight,” which chose to just glaze over them in favor of cheap, Mormon Church-approved platitudes). There’s a strong undercurrent of anti-Christian sentiment, a welcome change from the chaste “Twilight” vampires (at a certain point it becomes clear that Lena is hipper than the other girls in town, if only for the reason that she’s totally cool with giving it up), and, especially towards the end, a strain of hell-yeah feminism (thanks should probably be bestowed to the original novel’s writers Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl). Writer/director Richard LaGravenese tries his damnedest to deftly navigate the clunky plot, and while it’s not exactly a home run, it’s still an incredibly stylish, evocative, edgy (was that an incest reference?) and frequently funny (there’s even a Nancy Reagan joke) Southern Gothic romance. It’s a handsomer, more sincere movie than anything in the “Twilight” franchise, but it lacks a certain freshness that could prove crippling. Maybe if there was a spell to make everyone forget about “Twilight.” [B-]