It’s been two years since Mary Harron’s adaptation of Rachel Klein’s novel The Moth Diaries first took a bow at the Venice and Toronto film festivals and, looking at the finished product, it’s frankly not difficult to see why this puzzlingly insipid teen horror has taken so long to reach us here in the UK.
Rebecca (Sarah Bolger) returns to her all-girls boarding school for the new semester, still grieving her famous poet father’s recent suicide but secure in the knowledge that her friends are waiting for her, especially Lucie (Sarah Gadon). When mysterious new arrival Ernessa (Lily Cole) comes between the two, Rebecca is stranded as she comes to believe that Ernessa might be more than just an odd teenage girl.
There are some very promising ingredients at The Moth Diaries’ centre. There’s the promise of a novel take on vampire mythology, with the girls’ study of Carmilla led by handsome professor Scott Speedman (Underworld), who might be more interested in our heroine than he should be. The confines of a single-sex boarding school should be the perfect setting for an exploration of isolation, blossoming sexuality and teen suicide. Finally, there’s Mary Harron on both writing and directing duties. Surely the director of American Psycho, I Shot Andy Warhol and The Notorious Bettie Page could use these pieces to create something interesting?
But, with the exception of some lovely cinematography and one or two effective moments, The Moth Diaries goes precisely nowhere. At 80 minutes it’s perhaps not surprising that there isn’t room to explore the aforementioned issues in too much detail, but there’s very little in the way of plot either. Rebecca becomes more and more isolated from her friends, but this is kept from becoming at all gripping by a predictable script and a strange lack of wit. Neil Jordan’s recent adaptation of Moira Buffini’s Byzantium explores similar themes with so much more emotion, intelligence and flair that The Moth Diaries can’t help but seem weak in comparison. It’s all the more frustrating for its all-too-brief sharp moments that remind us that there’s interesting material struggling to get out.
In terms of performances, Bolger (In America) makes for a decent lead, but her character suffers the most from the film’s lack of momentum. Gadon has since gone on to bigger and better things with Antiviral and Cosmopolis, and she does well enough with a character who could have done with a bit more Lucy Westenra to her. While Cole uses her physical stature effectively to give Ernessa an spectral, unearthly presence, her performance falls flat as she fails to give life to some terrible dialogue.
What’s most disappointing about The Moth Diaries is how forgettable it is. Given the bleak direction in which the script pushes Rebecca, the emotional punches fail to land and infrequent moments of insight (the idea of blame is handled quite well) can’t compensate for an essentially blunt film. It’s rarely awful, but it moves along so uneventfully and unremarkably that you’ll be hard-pushed to remember much. Despite its early promise, this is fatally lacking in bite.