Film Review: The Moth Diaries

Disastrously mishandled adaptation of a neo-Gothic novel set in a posh girls’ college.

Of all the attempts to cash in on the success of the Twilight movies, Mary Harron’s risibly poor adaptation of Rachel Klein’s vampire-themed 2002 novel, The Moth Diaries, is among the more dispensable. Suspenseless, uninvolving and underdeveloped, it wastes the talents of an almost entirely distaff cast that deserves much stronger material. A fleeting theatrical run might pave the way for DVD sales to easily pleased teenage girls, though only die-hard fans of Klein’s book or of rising star Lily Cole will be particularly motivated to seek it out.

With her ethereal features, porcelain skin, wide-set eyes and willowy lankiness, British model/actress Cole is a natural fit for fantasy genres. And in the early stages here, she alternates between winsome meekness and sinister Goth-girl menace as Ernessa Bloch, enigmatic new arrival at the Brangwen School. This is a notably well-appointed educational establishment in some leafy corner of what looks like New England. (The film was actually shot around Montreal.) Intelligent and cultured, Ernessa quickly comes between 16-year-old best friends Rebecca (Sarah Bolger) and Lucy (Sarah Gadon). Rebecca, still recovering from the traumatic suicide of her father two years before, is upset and then deeply concerned at Lucy’s attachment to the newcomer.

Studying Gothic literature in the class of dishy Mr. Davies (Scott Speedman), Rebecca comes to suspect that the strikingly mature Ernessa may have supernatural powers and origins. Perhaps she’s even a vampire in the mold of the eponymous bloodsucker from Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, the 1872 novel inaccurately described by Davies as “one of the originators of the Gothic tale.”

For much of The Moth Diaries, however, the key literary inspiration would seem to be Jane Austen’s 1817 wryly comic Northanger Abbey, in which an impressionable young woman mistakenly believes herself to be in the midst of a Gothic nightmare, as a result of reading too many fashionably lurid novels.

But as the plot piles up all manner of wildly histrionic developments, it becomes apparent that writer-director Harron—in her first feature since 2005’s The Notorious Bettie Page—expects us to take them at face value. Klein’s novel is constructed as a series of journal entries, allowing for the possibility of Rebecca being a less-than-trustworthy narrator; on the screen there’s no real sense that what we’re seeing could be the result of delusion.

Harron, who came similarly unstuck when bringing Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho to the big screen back in 2000, piles on the chills with an uninspired, heavy hand. She amps up Lesley Barber’s score to counterproductive effect, while Declan Quinn’s cinematography settles for TV blandness at every opportunity.

As the girls’ identities blur, the school’s past as a hotel is explored and nocturnal insects obey human control, the template seems to be some combination of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and Dario Argento’s Phenomena—the mid-’80s shocker which propelled a young Jennifer Connelly towards stardom. And while Irish lead Bolger, who’s grown up rather quickly since 2002’s In America, shows appealing promise, The Moth Diaries is about as scary and menacing as the harmless lepidoptera in the film’s title.
The Hollywood Reporter