Written (from the novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl) and directed by Richard LaGravenese (who wrote “Ref” and “The Fisher King”), the film rigorously follows the “I Loved a Teenage [Supernatural Being of Some Sort]” conventions, presumably in an effort to tap the same audience that made the “Twilight” films a cash machine. I'm neither chronologically nor hormonally eligible for membership in said audience: If I were, perhaps I would have gone as misty-eyed over Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich) and Lena (Alice Englert) as I already surely would have over Bella, Edward and Jacob.
The movie starts with an expository voice over, in which Ethan lets us know that he lives in Gatlin, S.C., that his dad has been incapacitated with grief since mom died, and that he dreams (literally) of a beautiful stranger. Unlike the viewers, he is genuinely gobsmacked when she materializes as the new girl in class, Lena Duchannes (pronounced dew-cain). The Duchannes clan owns half the town plus an appropriately Gothic estate called Ravenswood Manor. The manse is occupied by reclusive Macon Duchannes (Jeremy Irons), who, like others in his family for at least 150 years, is believed to be a Satanist.
This rumor turns out to be not entirely baseless: The Duchannes may not worship Lucifer, but they are “casters” — that's witches and warlocks to you and me. They sport supernatural powers in a variety of configurations. Lena is believed to be the strongest of their kind in a bunch of years; and she is a few months short of her 16th birthday, when she will be revealed as a Light or Dark caster, according to her true nature. Despite this affiliation being apparently predetermined, the Darks — led by her mother, Sarafine (Emma Thompson, in a Hyde-and-Hyde dual role) — are trying to convince her or seduce her or otherwise get her to pick the Dark side.
All of this grows more complicated when Lena and Ethan fall in love. (Who'd a-thunk?)
To be fair, “Beautiful Creatures” isn't a complete retread of “Twilight.” There's a whole lot of “Dark Shadows” in there as well, particularly when a touch of wit manages to peak through the dark curtains of gothic solemnity. We enter the creepy old dark mansion, for instance, and find it's a showroom of ultramodern design and furniture.
Irritatingly, the filmmakers don't even attempt to explain away a major plot conundrum at the very end (to be more specific would be a spoiler). But, by that time, you're likely to be trying to remember where you left the car and whether there's still time to pick up some milk and what that new pain in your back might mean.
If there is anything that makes “Beautiful Creatures” suited for audiences over 18, it's Thompson, chewing the scenery both as an immortal being and a narrow-minded, small town harridan; and Irons, strutting his familiar contemptuous/effete/upper-class stuff.
--ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).