Edward Cullen has rouge lips, chalk-white skin and feral eyes that glow amber under dagger-like brows. And he wants to devour your teenage daughter. But mothers adore him. Although he’s dying to sink his teeth into female flesh, Edward restrains himself. He’s a gentleman vampire—keeping his love at a chaste distance with tortured foreplay and high romance.
Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke remembers the moment she understood the power of Edward. Last year, before her movie even had a script, she was at a book signing for Stephenie Meyer, author of the blockbuster novel that launched the franchise. Meyer walked onstage in front of 1,500 hard-core fans, Hardwicke recalls, “and as soon as she said the name ‘Edward,’ girls were screaming, getting dizzy, freaking out. There was no face to put with the name. So it was pretty obvious to me as soon as there was a real guy, an actor, these girls would go 10 times crazier.”
No kidding. Robert Pattinson, the 22-year-old English actor cast as Twilight’s vampire heartthrob, became an instant idol. One night during the shooting of the movie, Hardwicke recalls, fans hunted him down on location in the wilds of Oregon. “They found us on a mountaintop freezing at two in the morning. A mother handed her baby and a camera to a production assistant—a stranger!—and had her walk half a mile to the set to get her baby’s picture taken with Rob.”
That kind of insanity erupted on a mass scale last weekend as hordes of screaming teenage girls, and more than a few mothers, saw their fantasy come to life. Opening on some 6,000 screens across North America, Twilight outstripped all expectations. Boosted by sold-out midnight screenings, it earned US$35 million its opening day, almost recouping its modest budget of US$37 million. And the weekend gross reached US$70 million, a record for a movie by a female director. That’s all the more remarkable considering the film was hatched by a fledgling independent studio, Summit Entertainment, which picked up the franchise after Paramount decided it was a dud and dropped it. Summit has already announced New Moon, based on the second novel in the saga.
Hollywood has never seen a teen romance explode out of the gate with such force. Titanic sent girls into a swoon, but the adoration of Leonardo DiCaprio took some time to jell. Twilight’s opening uncorked a phenomenon that has been brewing for months—stoked by the popularity of Meyer’s novel and its three sequels, which have collectively sold 17 million copies. Before the movie opened, its official website scored eight million hits and its trailers drew a record 12 million views on MySpace. When Pattinson appeared on MuchMusic last week, there was pandemonium in the Toronto studio as he cowered on a couch, his words drowned out by screaming fans; some had camped out for two days. And in thousands of cinemas, virtually all-girl audiences shrieked in unison when Pattinson came onscreen—an austere dreamboat who’s a cross between Heathcliff and James Dean.
Since Star Wars, Hollywood has doted on male youth. An entire industry of special effects has been wired to the overstimulation of adolescents hooked on action. But Twilight confirms there’s a powerful new demographic in play: the fangirl. We’ve had a taste of it with tween hits like the High School Musical movies, and the hysteria generated by the stars of Pirates of the Caribbean and Harry Potter. But Twilight ushers in the first major teen romance franchise almost exclusively aimed at teenage girls.
Judging from the obsessive chatter on some of the 350-odd websites devoted to Twilight, the fans of the book are not disappointed with the film. The most common complaint is that its two hours go by too fast. “When Bella and Edward were making out the envy was so strong it almost made me sick,” wrote Hannah, in a fan post on hisgoldeneyes.com. “But it was a good sick because it was so hot and the sleeping scene was SO cute i died i think . . . but then i came back to life because i need to finish the movie.” On the same site, Meredith wrote: “I screamed inside my head the whole time, and when the whole theater squealed, I did too. The kissing scenes were perfect. I am going again tomorrow. Robert did an amazing job—Faints—I cannot sleep.” And this from Kate: “I thought some of Rob’s eye stares were slightly werid [sic], but the whole cast was so good. And I have to say—I was NOT expecting it to be so FUNNY!! I laughed so much more than I ever thought I would!! The movie was perfect—aside from the screaming girls in the theater.”
Audiences have been volatile. Some girls scream, while others shush. Much of the movie plays as romantic comedy with a smirk of camp, leaving its rapt audience careening between swoons and giggles. Males are scarce; in online posts, girls complain their boyfriends refuse to go. But they should “if they were smart and wanted to pick up chicks,” says Hardwicke. “I can’t believe more guys haven’t caught on to that.” The smattering of young males who do get dragged along, or show up out of curiosity, might as well be crashing a pyjama party.
Meanwhile, critical reaction to the movie has been lukewarm. Typically reviewers complain it’s a vampire movie that lacks bite. Which seems to miss the point. The vast majority of film critics are male, and they tend to have fixed ideas about vampires and horror. But Twilight isn’t horror; it’s unadulterated romance. And it lacks the usual vampire tropes. Edward belongs to a wholesome family of “vegetarian” bloodsuckers, who prey only on animals, not people. Sunlight doesn’t burn them, but makes their skin sparkle like diamonds. And they don’t sleep in coffins; they occupy an architectural dream house, a mountaintop aerie filled with light and art.
What girls and women love about Edward is that he doesn’t bite. He’s a hot-blooded model of restraint and chivalry. And Bella Swan, the winsome heroine played by Kristen Stewart, is no victim. She’s the one calling the shots, boldly rewarding Edward with her trust. And she will decide just when she wants her flesh pierced—consummating the romance only when she’s ready to join him in the undead eternity of vampire matrimony.
Twilight offers “a fascinating metaphor for teenage blood lust,” says Hardwicke. “The vampire wants to eat her and kill her but he doesn’t want to. Every teenage girl struggles with that. Your body has all these hormones rushing through you, and you’re bombarded by sexual images in ads, but you’re not supposed to act on it. You want to rip the clothes off the other person but you don’t want to be a slut the next day, or a rapist.” The movie, she adds, “is a fantastic advertisement for extended foreplay. And how sexy is that?”
Hardwicke made her directing debut with Thirteen (2003), a vérité drama that explored raging female hormones from the opposite angle—as harrowing, unromantic realism. She co-wrote that film with Nikki Reed, who based it on her own delinquent experiments with sex, drugs and shoplifting. And Reed, now 20, is cast as Rosalie, the protective older sister of Twilight’s vampire clan.
Thirteen and Twilight come from different places, says Hardwicke. “Nikki looked like a supermodel at 13. Most girls are more like Bella. She’s clumsy and she doesn’t feel like she fits in.” But both films have been inspirational. With Thirteen, she adds, “people said ‘You filmed my life.’ It came to be like cinema therapy. In a different way, Twilight is a creative catalyst. These girls are making their own fan fiction and writing songs. I’ve never had so many hugs or signed so many laptops and pillowcases. And I can’t tell you how many girls have come up to me saying this is inspiring them to be a writer or director.”
It remains to be seen if Twilight’s success can spread beyond the fan base. The lead blurb on the ads proclaims the film “a pop culture phenomenon,” as if that’s reason enough for the uninitiated to check it out. At least one critic has compared Twilight to The Passion of the Christ—as a movie that has ignited a demographic previously ill-served by Hollywood. But the Twilight craze is untainted by ideology, even if the religious right could embrace the saga as an ad for abstinence. Meyer, after all, is a Mormon. And her sensible heroine holds off sex until after she is finally married to Edward in the fourth novel of the series, Breaking Dawn. Then—spoiler alert!—all the gooey, eye-gazing romance goes out the window. Finally letting Edward off the leash in a bout of furniture-breaking sex, Bella gets pregnant. Abortion is not an option. And soon she is vomiting “fountains of blood” while being battered by a super-powered fetus that’s cracking her ribs before finally giving birth to a half-vampire demon.
If the movie franchise ever makes it to the fourth novel, the result may end up looking more like Rosemary’s Baby. But by that time, Twilight’s tender fans will be older and less naive. And with any luck, they may even be on a date.