Knock-off; noun: a copy or imitation of something popular. Knock off; transitive verb: to do hurriedly or routinely. Meeting both definitions is “Vampire Academy,” a tween-targeted novel franchise penned by Richelle Mead, which has been adapted to the big screen as a lazy, deja-vu-inducing mess. Director Mark Waters takes the high school clique bitchiness of his previous film “Mean Girls” and drops it into a “Harry Potter”-style boarding school of magic, then tosses in the good-vampire-versus-bad-vampire lore and histrionically romantic teens from the “Twilight” series.
Zoey Deutch plays Rose Hathaway, a half-human, half-vampire breed known as a Dhampir, in a copycat performance that is half the look of Kate Beckinsale from “Underworld” and half the mouth of Ellen Page from “Juno” — her unrelenting snarkiness will leave you pleading for a stake through the heart.
“Vampire Academy” drops you into the story artlessly, with a big constipated lump of exposition about the ancient Dhampir race, who are badass bodyguards sworn to protect the Moroi (good vampire mages who don’t attack humans) from the Strigoi (old-school and slavering blood-sucking vampires). For Rose, that means protecting her BFF Lissa Dragomir (Lucy Fry), who is also a princess and the last surviving heir to the throne.
Together these two best-friends-forever flirt with boys — Dominic Sherwood in the brooding, pale, hunky Robert Pattinson role, and Cameron Monaghan in the nice-guy-but-ginger Rupert Grint role — go to school dances, get tormented by bullies, go to the mall and, you know, like, prepare to fight the undead and stuff.
Small pleasures are few and far between: There’s Bond girl Olga Kurylenko, who camps it up as the cruel headmistress, but Gabriel Byrne is fairly bland as a doddering old member of the faculty. Danila Kozlovsky will set young hearts aflutter as Rose’s Dhampir battle-trainer, Dimitri, but the acting here is generally flat, not quite up to hammy, so-bad-it’s-good excess. The special effects are cheap-looking, if not inept, but the battle scenes show a total lack of flair or impact.
There’s an almost-interesting undercurrent in how Rose lets Lissa feed on her blood — in deep bites on her bared skin — when they are on the run together; an intimacy that is nearly lesbian. The girls are mercilessly bullied for this when it becomes schoolyard gossip, but the “Vampyros Lesbos” aspect is quickly banished to the closet by endless talk of “crushing” on boys.
“Vampire Academy” failed to set the box office alight overseas, and the directors are now trying to use Kickstarter to get fans to fund a sequel. While not as disastrous as “John Carter,” it only recouped less than half its budget after its U.S. release, and, as such, is more evidence that fantasy franchise films are a pretty big gamble. It’s sad to see The Weinstein Company — the people who once backed many unique projects when they were known as Miramax — going down that route.