Director David Slade presses the button labelled 'dark' in the third Twilight episode, writes DAMON SMITH
THE tug of war for the affections of Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) reaches a crucial juncture in the latest film based on Stephenie Meyer's bestselling teen romances. In the same way that the film version of Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban was the darkest and most satisfying instalment of its series, this third helping of brooding vampires and snarling werewolves is the most entertaining to date.
Director David Slade (Hard Candy, 30 Days Of Night) deserves some of the credit, cranking up the tension between suitors Edward and Jacob against a backdrop of impending civil war between rival bloodsucking factions.
The leading cast have also settled into their iconic roles and Pattinson, especially, runs the gamut of emotions as his fanged hunk risks losing his soul mate.
Screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg retains most of Meyer's book, including a sexually charged stand off in a tent, which forces Edward to watch jealously as Jacob uses his body heat to stop Bella freezing to death.
"Let's face it, I am hotter than you," smirks Jacob, suggesting that he could warm up Bella even faster if she removed her clothes. Saucy devil.
Graduation approaches for Bella and the teenager must choose between Edward (Pattinson), the vampire who won her heart, and Jacob (Lautner), the best friend who has snuck into her affections.
Rejection for one young man could potentially ignite the ancient rivalry between the lycans and the bloodsuckers.
Meanwhile, Victoria (Howard) returns to Forks, Washington, to kill Bella in revenge for Edward's slaying of her lover.
The avenger brings with her a new race of vampires with phenomenal strength, led by local boy Riley (Samuel), and only the combined forces of sworn enemies, the Cullens and the Blacks, can stop these ferocious, blood-crazed predators.
Edward's family members - Dr Carlisle (Peter Facinelli), Esme (Elizabeth Reaser), Alice (Ashley Greene), Jasper (Jackson Rathbone), Emmett (Kellan Lutz) and Rosalie (Nikki Reed) - prepare for battle: "Something terrible is coming, and we must all be ready."
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse is a fast-paced romp that should delight ardent fans and draw in a few newcomers with briskly edited action sequences.
The menage a trois generates the film's dramatic momentum, leading to tears and tantrums as the enormity of the situation becomes apparent. "I'm gonna fight for you until your heart stops beating," promises Jacob.
"I'm exactly perfect for you Bella," he coos. "It would be as easy as breathing being with me."
Unfortunately, the character's long-awaited declaration of love is unintentionally hilarious rather than touching.
Stewart enjoys snogging her two handsome co-stars and Howard has such limited screen time, it makes a mockery of the ballyhoo surrounding her re-casting as Victoria.
Fight sequences are orchestrated at breakneck pace, although some of the digital effects don't gel seamlessly with the live action.
Eclipse neatly sets the scene for the heartache of the final film, Breaking Dawn, which is scheduled for release in two parts in 2011 and 2012.
There's nothing like milking a cash cow dry.