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‘The Moth Diaries’ strives for more, which makes it fall even harder

The Moth Diaries

Directed by Mary Harron

Written by Mary Harron

U.S.A., 2011

Mary Harron is one of those directors whose names is tossed into the hat when people want to discuss the top directors working in North America today, and her name definitely comes up whenever the topic is female directors. What might strike somebody who is told that Harron is among those one needs to pay attention to is her limited output. Since her directorial debut I Shot Andy Warhol 16 years ago in 1996, she has made but 3 films. Chances are that if one asks movie buffs the titles of her films most will only be able to name her most celebrated work, American Psycho from 2000. Of course, the easy argument against such a slight would be the obvious ‘quality trumps quantity.’ Which brings the discussion to her latest effort, The Moth Diaries, a film that, for someone who seems to take so much time finding projects, plays out like a rushed effort.

Rebecca (Sarah Bolger) attends a private, girls only high school. 16, she has already witnessed quite a bit in her young lifetime, like her father’s professional success as a poet and his subsequent suicide. Thankfully, she has her friend Lucy (Sarah Gadon) by her side nearly at all times during the semester. Together they have formed a strong bond and expanded their circle of friends at the prep school. Things begin to run less smoothly from the day a new student transfers in, Ernessa (Lily Cole). Tall, a little on the pale side, Ernessa somehow takes over Rebecca’s friends. Not in any overt way, but via some subtle mannerisms, as if she possesses some undetectable supernatural powers over them. A worrisome sequence of events follows: a friend is expelled for having gone through with a dirty trick Ernessa suggested, Lucy grows apart from Rebecca, preferring to spend more time with the new student and even scolding Rebecca whenever the latter suggests the idea that Ernessa may not be all what she appears, and another perishes under circumstances that, in the protagonist’s eyes, point far more towards murder than an accident or suicide. Is Rebecca astutely following the clues to a horrific conclusion or is her mind playing tricks on her?

‘What few scenes attempt to spark fear fall flat, lacking any genuine momentum in the lead-up to payoffs which are mostly stale.’

The Moth Diaries is an unfortunate case of a film which holds much promise in the early goings yet fails in delivering what might have been an intelligent, carefully constructed and arresting horror film. It is quite plain to see where the potential for such a film lies. For one, the setting of a private high school which religious Christian inclinations reserved for girls brings forth a plethora of thematic possibilities . The presence of what Rebecca assumes to be a vampire is, in of itself, naturally cause for concern. Compounding that element is the school’s staunchly Christian identity, the relationships between students, all female, who are in a way ‘sealed off’ from the rest of society during the entire semester. The material is all there for Mary Harron to toy with, although the fruits of her efforts feel rather halfhearted. The one angle Moth Diaries does explore with depth is the jealousy experienced by the protagonist as Ernessa works her web around Lucy and other members of their group. As the possibility that Ernessa may very well be a creature of the night becomes increasingly evident, the fact that the latter is taking away Rebecca’s friends is pertinent as is the manner by which she does it. Lucy is the perfect example. With every passing week she grows more tired, more weak and sickly. Ernessa is, by seducing Lucy with her strange powers, quite literally, sucking her life energy away. Added to that is Lucy’s increasing frustration towards Rebecca’s for her incessant claims that Ernessa is dangerous. It is the gothic horror twist on a rift between two people who once were inseparable. Not a bad idea to develop in a film of this nature and, in that regard, Harron pulls off the task handsomely. Supporting this story are some fine performances by the young cast, with star Sarah Bolger proving to be a worthy, believable protagonist.

Sadly, apart the aforementioned exploration of teen jealousy within the confines of a vampire tale, very little of Moth Diaries amounts to anything at all. To begin with, this is supposed to be a horror film. Horror assumes that the audience will experience some chills, some tension, some shocking surprises, at the very least some unease. Director Harron approaches the material, tonally at least, as she did American Psycho. Any surreal moments are presented very in very ‘matter of fact’ fashion. In Psycho the moments are rich in effect because the rest of the world in that film is realistic. Such a strategy works to Moth Diaries‘ detriment because the audience already knows heading in that this is supposed to be a scary movie. What few scenes attempt to spark fear fall flat, lacking any genuine momentum in the lead-up to payoffs which are mostly stale. Unless completely unaccustomed to scary movies, Moth Diaries will not cause anybody to lose sleep or keep the light on in their room at night.

‘There are also instances when the story reveals details about Rebecca’s past, but in a way that makes it look as though director Harron is making it up as she goes along.’

The script, which Mary Harron helped pen, as well as the direction, are also irksome. Insufficient time is allocated to developing Ernessa as a creepy individual. There is no increasing sense of dread or suspense in how that character is handled. She appears one day at school, is presented as a transfer student and right off the bat looks weird and awkward. Of course, nobody can detect that something is amiss about Ernessa with the exception of Rebecca, which is a frustrating cliche to work with anyways. Why not have Rebecca view Ernessa just as positively as everyone else and then be surprised by her true nature? There are also instances when the story reveals details about Rebecca’s past, but in a way that makes it look as though director Harron is making it up as she goes along. Early on the audience learns that her father committed suicide. Later, when she is trying to barge through a locked door that may lead her to Ernessa’s secret, a quick flashback shows a slightly younger Rebecca trying to crash open the door to the bathroom where her dying father is. Why reveal that detail so late in the proceedings? The director may be going for symmetry, but having not been privy to that information beforehand it feels superficial and only stuffs the latter stages of the film. The same can be argued for Ernessa’s origin story, which is amateurish in how it tries to resonate with Rebecca’s backstory.  Moth Diaries also falls into the pitfall of having to explain things to the audience. Is Ernessa a vampire of sorts or is she not? Well, Rebecca is currently reading Carmilla (a vampire tale) for her English literature class. Rather than trying to fit the pieces together along with the audience, she visits her teacher, Mr. Davies (Scott Speedman) who conveniently lists how vampires behave in trapping their prey. Not only are those specific useless, but the film then tries to make something more out of them by hinting that Mr. Davies may feel an attraction towards young Rebecca, but even that is a pointless subplot that ultimately leads nowhere. Frankly, it belongs in another movie.

Not helping matters is the film’s shoddy editing. Transitions from one scene to the next, which is a crucial aspect in setting up the contexts of scenes, are abrupt and at times confusing. There are moments that lead the viewer to believe a scene is about to reveal one last beat before concluding, only for Harron to cut it to an immediate end. The editing is, all around, rather choppy (no pun intended).

It is not as if Moth Diaries had no potential to start with. What makes the experience all the more disappointing is the movie could have been an important entry in the vampire horror genre and balance things out nicely given how so many recent outputs, both on film and television, have distorted the vampire mythology. Alas, it was apparently not meant to be.

-Edgar Chaput