Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Twilight
Yes, Twilight is Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, but not for many of the reasons you might suspect. For one thing, it’s actually well-made, which sets it apart from the Ed Wood style cheesefest. Also, filmmaker Catherine Hardwicke delivers the exact film she wanted to make, which is usually not the case for a cheesy film as we define it. So if the movie is so good and intentional, how does it still deliver the cheese? Because it is an entertaining movie despite the author‘s intent. And that distinction will be important later.
The plot centers on Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), a teenager from Arizona without the slightest indication that she has ever seen the sun. Because her mother is going on the road with her minor league baseball player boyfriend, Bella moves to the rainy and overcast Forks, Washington — where her skin tone makes a lot more sense — to live with her father Charlie (Billy Burke), the chief of Forks’s well-staffed police force. On her first day at her new high school, she becomes the toast of the town with a surprisingly diverse cross-section of the student body vying for her attention and friendship. This group includes jocks, kids from the school newspaper and overly studious overachievers. But Bella instantly zeroes in on one group totally unaffected by her arrival, a gang of orphan kids known as The Cullens. They are two sets of couples with skin tones slightly paler than Bella’s and they seem quite happy to ignore life in Forks. But there is one other Cullen, a sullen young man called Edward (Robert Pattinson).
And as Bella arrives for her science class, she discovers her lab partner is Edward. He is immediately appalled by her scent, making the entire class period awkward. Bella has a baseline insecurity and it is only made worse when she spots Edward trying to transfer out of the class. Days go by with Edward missing school entirely. When he finally returns, he comes off more charming and sociable; almost as though something within him had changed drastically.
The two begin a strained friendship as Edward appears to suffer from absurd mood swings; both pulling her in while pushing her away. But when Bella is nearly hit by a truck in the school parking lot, Edward leaps into action and Bella notices two strange things about the rescue. One: he ran across the parking lot at superhuman speed. Two: he used superhuman strength to stop the truck from crushing her. When she confronts him about it later, his first instinct is to gaslight her, but he eventually tells her the truth — Edward is a vampire.
Well, a special sort of vampire. He sparkles in sunlight instead of burning away. He can also read minds, except for Bella, which makes her an irresistible mystery to her. They start dating and Bella learns the rest of the Cullens are vampires as well, including adoptive “parents” Carlisle (Peter Facinelli) and Esme (Elizabeth Reaser). They eventually welcome her into the fold and invite her to a baseball game in the woods when another clan of vampires marauding across the Northwest ask to join their game. When they realize Bella is human, it sets off a series of mishaps, misunderstandings and dismemberments which vaguely resemble a movie with stakes and structure.
You may have guessed by now, but the overall strangeness of Twilight is its principle charm. It doesn’t behave by the rules of horror movies, high school movies or even romance movies. And its bold defiance of typical storytelling grammar and structure makes it a jaw-dropping experience when you first see it. But even as it dodges the usual plot threads and character beats found in movies featuring teenagers and/or vampires, it has this strange earnest heart. The emotions feels correct for a high school drama with an added fantasy component. Bella’s refusal to acknowledge her popularity resembles a genuine teenage self-centeredness. And when you view the film through the lens of Bella as an almost anti-protagonist, a magical thing happens: you notice it is quietly critiquing the source material, the first in a four novel series by Stephenie Meyer, while making a very straight-faced dramatization of the events contained within it.
Remember when I mentioned Edward’s first instinct is to gaslight Bella when she confronts him about his powers? We’re suppose to notice that. That strange sensation you feel when Bella does not run in terror from Edward when he refers to himself as a killer or when says he likes watching her sleep? That’s meant to be there, too. The Twilight novels are meant to be consumed as completely sincere works of a Young Adult romance subgenre and it is pretty clear Meyer means for her readers to regard Bella and Edward as not just heroes, but also examples of an ideal love affair. There’s more to say about why they don’t really work that way, but it might be better to save that for a time when we discuss The Twilight Saga: New Moon. In the meantime, it is important to note that Hardwicke totally sees the serious faults in Bella and Edward as the protagonists. But since she is constrained to faithfully interpret Meyer’s Twilight into a film form, she can only offer the overwrought emotions of teenagers to clue you into her viewpoint of Meyer’s worldview. The end result is a film nudging you to notice the issues embedded in its story.
Which is something we should focus on for a moment because that’s where the cheese lives. Edward is a roughly 90-year-old vampire attracted to a 17-year-old girl. He sneaks into her bedroom to watch her sleep and tells her about this after they start dating. He gaslights her at the beginning of their acquaintance and even warns her that he is a terrible person, nonetheless, he is the romantic lead precisely because he is so dangerous and controlling. Meanwhile, Bella is herself toxic. She denies friendships because they are not the “perfect” ones she envisions. She hurts her parents constantly and throws herself into this relationship because it feels more substantial than anything she’s ever experienced. Yikes! These are Meyers heroes, by-the-by. Meanwhile, the rules of vampirism Meyer sketches out suggests she only had an elementary understanding of the folklore or willfully ignored it in favor of a creature better suited to her purposes. That they end up resembling the X-Men probably isn’t an accident, either. As others have noted, her prose style is lacking — though some could argue it is on point for a teenager — and her plotting is virtually non-existent. Nevertheless, Meyer’s Twilight entertains despite her intent and her flaws; our very definition of cheese. It also does some unique things. The often derided baseball scene is sort of amazing because there’s not really a twist to it. The Cullens play during a thunderstorm because it masks the loud smacks of the bat against the ball generated by their enhanced strength, but other than that, there’s no horror or fantastical edge to it. They’re not playing for bags of blood or the chance to take a pint out of Bella. It’s spectacular in a way no writer could intentionally create. Hardwicke recreates this sensation and one-ups it by giving the marauders a more traditionally sinister entrance, only to deflate that tension by having their leader ask, “Can we play, too?”
That’s just one example of the constant cheesy thrills to be found in Twilight as it unfolds. There’s just to much to cover, from Bella’s aching teenager narration to Jacob’s (Taylor Lautner) hair. There’s Rosalie Cullen’s (Nikki Reed) dislike of Bella, which seems to evaporate once the marauder threat appears late in the runtime. There’s the suggestion of interesting characters like the clairvoyant Alice Cullen (Ashley Greene) and the neurotic Jessica (Anna Kendrick). There’s the attempt to set up the high school world as painfully mundane and the Cullens as an exciting alternative despite their self-professed pacifism. Then there’s the magic of Burke’s Charlie Swan, which only becomes more magical with each subsequent film.
But Twilight stands apart from the others because of Hardwicke’s direction. She has that point of view about the material which is deftly contained within the straighter aspects of the story. She employs a handheld, wide-angle camera which makes scenes feel more immediate and emotional; reflecting the emotions Bella resists expressing. She also cast the shit out of this thing. All the key characters are the right sort of pretty and the right sort of messed up for the teenagers they’re supposed to be playing. It delivers on the teen fantasy which made Meyer’s novels a success while still offering two leads who were smart enough to see at least some of the horrifying flaws in their characters. Hardwicke was not invited back for the sequels; some of which generate their own brands of cheese, but never the same quality.
If you’ve never seen Twilight, gather some friends and be prepared to be stunned. While I’ve offered some of the criticisms and marvels of the film, nothing can really prepare you for your first encounter with it. That sensation is of a sort only the best kind of cheese can deliver.
Twilight is currently available as part of a basic Hulu subscription and for rent at the usual streaming platforms. It is also available on disc media in a variety of formats and special editions.