Mary Harron is a director who’s not squeamish about using copious amounts of sex and violence tinged with dark humour in her work. In American Psycho, she showcased Christian Bale’s dark side (before we actually knew he had a dark side) and in The Notorious Bettie Page, she looked at female desire and the beginnings of fetish photography. So, you’d think she’d be the ideal person to take on the adaptation of a young adult novel that deals with vampire boarding school girls. The Moth Diaries unfortunately proves that’s simply not the case. I mean, who knew a vampire movie could be so entirely bloodless?
The film tells the story of a teen girl named Rebecca (Sarah Bolger) who’s still reeling from her writer Father’s recent gory suicide. She’s more than happy to escape back to her life at her pretty country boarding school where she can rely on her very best friend Lucy (Sarah Gadon) to be a shoulder to cry on and a defacto partner in crime. After a warm reunion filled with all sorts of girly bonding rituals, the delicate balance of the school is tested when an eerie new student named Ernessa (Lily Cole) sweeps in (quite literally: she prefers dramatic sweeping overcoats) and seems to bewitch Lucy.
At first Lucy is simply fascinated by the black-clad Ernessa’s mysterious worldliness but soon she becomes obsessed with her, wanting to spend every moment in her company and actively shunning those who question her behaviour — including the very concerned Rebecca, who has her suspicions that Ernessa may be a professional bloodsucker with nefarious designs on her best friend.
Rebecca begins to investigate Ernessa’s strange past in an attempt to save Lucy’s life but as she gets deeper into her task, it becomes clear that it might be Rebecca herself who’s slowly losing control of her faculties. Even her favourite teacher (Scott Speedman), who seems to be oddly obsessed with teaching Gothic novels that only egg Rebecca’s behaviour on, can’t seem to reach her or dissuade her from her quest to expose Ernessa’s secret life and ruin her chances at lulling even more students under her thrall.
The problem with The Moth Diaries isn’t with the story which is, although a tad on the juvenile side, intriguing enough to give the right Director a great foothold into creating a fun, perhaps slightly campy horror-tinged exploitation drama. It’s just too bad that Harron decided instead to create a straight drama seemingly without the notion that any movie featuring a teen vampire at an all-girls school is probably not the best starting point for a serious exploration of the nature of female friendship. Under her plodding direction the story unfolds with a snail-like pace and features a handful of one-note performances from the otherwise intriguing young actresses.
At least Harron does attempt to play up the film’s spooky location and gothic roots and for a while during the film’s first act there’s real potential for some genuine scares. Unfortunately, the tone shifts away from that loopy darkness pretty quickly and settles into the dull push/pull of the “is she crazy or is she the only sane person here” trope. It’s tiresome and frankly, kind of depressing for someone who buys a ticket expecting some trashy fun.
In other words, it’s a vampire movie entirely without teeth.