Twilight interests me because it almost takes the “mass” out of “mass entertainment.” Most film franchises have their special target audiences but also try to sweep in as many other customers as possible. James Bond’s macho thrills and high-tech nonsense may be male-oriented, but they cut across age divisions. (Going into Twilight, I crossed paths with two geezers, at least two years older than I am, chortling over the body count in Quantum of Solace.) Even Disney cartoon features have so many knowing wisecracks about pop culture that adults often laugh while kids are puzzled.

Twilight is different because it’s aimed intensely, single-mindedly, at one narrow sector of the movie audience. Though it is a tribute to the craftsmanship of scriptwriter Melissa Rosenberg (adapting the first installment of Stephenie Meyer’s best-selling young-adult series) and director Catherine Hardwicke that anybody who enjoys romantic fantasy and/or vampire-horror will find this film watchable, those anybodys will merely be privileged bystanders. The twelve- to sixteen-year-old females camping outside multiplexes in freezing weather on opening day form a congregation, and the moviemakers have conscientiously ministered to it.

Hardwicke was the right director for this story precisely because she isn’t drawn to guts and gore and has no penchant for making your flesh creep. Her specialty, so far, is getting into the minds of prepubescent girls, as in her Thirteen, a contemporary story, and The Nativity Story, which, for better and worse, brought the Christmas story down to earth by making it a study of a nice Jewish girl with an unprecedented problem. Likewise, Bella Swan of Twilight remains someone with whom all the girls can identify even as she learns that her boyfriend is a hundred years old, gets flown two hundred feet up in the air on his back, watches a backyard baseball game played by runners covering bases at 100 mph, and walks into a darkened room fully expecting to be torn to pieces by a monster. Using the excellent Kristen Stewart as Bella, and keeping the camera concentrated on the actress’s muted yet warm expressiveness, Hardwicke never lets this yarn lurch into camp or Grand Guignol, but maintains it as a love story in a horror-movie context. It’s an entertainment for Valentine’s Day, not Halloween.

The setting neatly supports both the romance and the supernatural mood. The story begins with its sixteen-year-old heroine uprooted by her parents’ divorce and forced to live with her country-sheriff dad (well played by Billy Burke) in an unfamiliar part of the country and to make new friends midsemester in a new high school. It was a stroke of genius for the author to take Bella from sunny, dry Arizona to the state of Washington, with its gray skies, perpetual imminence of rain, and undiscourageable vegetation, a climate as unsettling as a vampire’s hold on half-life. The director and her cinematographer, Elliot Davis, have created visuals that suggest the inside of a greenhouse invaded by frost.

Although Bella tries to adjust, Kristen Stewart communicates both the queasiness and the tremulous expectancy of a young person who can’t figure out if the sudden changes in her life constitute a disaster or a premonition of some higher destiny. That it’s both becomes clear when the Cullen siblings glide into the school cafeteria, all of them (three boys, two girls) pale, self-contained, and aloof, with Edward being the strangest and most eye-catching of them all, at least for Bella.

It was at this point that my outsider’s status in the audience was confirmed. I looked at Edward (played by Robert Pattinson, a junior version of Christopher Walken) and saw only the evidence of a makeup department gone berserk: layered hair, powdered skin, penciled eyebrows, lacquered lips. This fellow a heartthrob? Yet, everywhere about me, squeals, sighs, and half-suppressed screams! What was going on here?

Later, I realized how wrong I was. The long-ebbed tides of punk and goth having done their work, no girl is going to be put off by face powder and lipstick on a boy, and Edward could be a heartthrob precisely because he is a freak. A mild-mannered, warm-hearted, only harmlessly predatory vampire (the Cullens feast only on the blood of animals), he is the perfect outsider to offer romance to an ordinary girl forced by circumstances and hormones to be an outsider herself.

The rest of the movie is taken up with the burgeoning romance of Bella and Edward, and the melodrama of some invading bloodsuckers who feast unabashedly on humans and must be combated by the Cullens, especially when the invaders focus their attention on Bella. This vampiric civil war is the motor of the movie, but the romance is its heart. For what Hardwicke and Rosenberg, following Meyer’s lead, have accomplished here is the union of two genres: vampire horror and 1950s teen romances, such as A Summer Place, Parrish, and Blue Denim. The tension at the heart of those romances was supplied by the big question confronting pre-pill adolescent sweethearts: Do we do it or not? And, if we do it, how do we keep our parents from knowing, especially if pregnancy occurs? In these days of sex education, easily obtained contraceptives, and unprized virginity, how could a contemporary movie maintain the old tension? Twilight has the answer: If Edward makes love with Bella, it will release an uncontrollable urge in him to eat her, or at least to drain enough blood out of her to turn her into a vampire. So here we have the resurrection of a very old notion: Abstinence leads to sexual frustration but also preserves romantic ardency.

Of course, another and even older genre hovers over Twilight: the Gothic romance, from which vampire tales splintered off as a subgenre. Edward Cullen harks back to another Edward: Jane Eyre’s Rochester. And Heathcliff. And Steerforth. And their real-life counterpart, Lord Byron. Edward Cullen is aloof, smoldering, and potentially dangerous, yet capable of compassion, a superboy who with one hand can stop a skidding car from running Bella down, can fly her to the tops of giant trees to enjoy a glorious vista, and, having driven her home from a date, can zoom around the car, faster than little Dash in The Incredibles, to open her door. Chivalry is alive in this movie, though it must be upheld by the undead.

The poet David Lehman defined pop romance as “sex without the dirt, eros without disease and old age.” That’s the pith of Twilight. No wonder the girls in the audience were squealing.

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.
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Published in the 2008-12-19 issue: View Contents
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