It's no mystery why Stephenie Meyer's romantic vampire saga Twilight gets under the skin of so many young readers — and why the movie, although nowhere near as penetrating, will be the occasion for mass public swoon-a-thons. It's the biochemistry angle.
See, the gorgeous vampire, Edward, is driven mad with desire by the high-school heroine Isabella's scent. She has just arrived in their remote Pacific Northwest town to live with her chief of police father. Edward smells her while they're peering through a microscope at microbes, and his eyes become a feral yellow-black; and she soon loves him hungrily, too, in her ordinary teenage raging hormonal way, which is powerful enough. But in this universe, the vampire's appetites cannot be controlled. One taste of her blood could trigger carnage on an operatic scale.
Meyer's prose is skimmable but her dialogue hits all the right beats; experiencing these two beautiful creatures' enforced sexual suppression on the page made me feel like I was 17 again. But Twilight the movie is cautious, virtually bloodless, and, of course, sexless, a sort of teen-magazine version of Twin Peaks. In its undercooked way, though, it's enjoyable.
A lot of people have so much invested in it being the biggest hot-date movie since Titanic that they'll love it anyway, and their reactions will be part of the show. At the screening I went to, three rows of girls in the front shrieked at the entrance of Robert Pattinson and shrieked again when he locked eyes with Isabella or Bella, played by Kristen Stewart. He's a strange looking actor, more my idea of a hunky Frankenstein Monster than a hunky vampire, with six inches of hair above six inches of forehead above a foot of face in too-obvious white greasepaint. But he matches up with Stewart, who has a long face herself although rather less lipstick.
In the high school cafeteria, he tilts his head down and rolls his eyeballs up soulfully and tries to convey the hopelessness of their situation. The emotion in the scene is palpable, except they're in the throes of intimacy before their intimacy has even been established.
I think you'll need to read the book to pick up on all the vibes, because the script by Melissa Rosenberg is barely functional. And even with the heroine's narration, the director, Catherine Hardwicke, doesn't bring us into Bella's head as she's observing Edward and his strange family of marbleized outsiders, his adopted parents and brothers and sisters. The idea that this pallid clan passes as human is a laugh; when Edward's father Carlisle, a much-loved doctor, strides into the hospital emergency room, he looks ready to host a Monster Chiller Horror Theater marathon. You expect him to say, "Do you have a table for one?"
Hardwicke jacks up the atmosphere with a camera that swoops all over the woods and a romantic grunge-rock soundtrack. Good and bad vampires gorily fight it out and there are werewolves around, too, although you won't see them transform until the next movie in the Twilight saga. The best thing in the film is Kristen Stewart, and she's better at conveying physical longing than any of the actors playing vampires. She alone suggests how this series was born, in the mind of a young Mormon girl who had to sublimate like mad with thoughts of vampires. Duncan Lance Black, the screenwriter of the gay-rights activist Harvey Milk biopic with Sean Penn opening next week, is also a Mormon. With characters that veer between implosive sexual repression and explosive sexual liberation, Mormons might well be the new Catholics!