The categorical failure of the Canadian produced teen horror flick The Moth Diaries comes as a shock for two main reasons. The first would be the participation of writer-director Mary Harron, who previously helmed both American Psycho and The Notorious Betty Page, and has proven that she’s quite adept to the feminine sensibilities this adaptation of Rachel Klein’s novel deserves. Second, the film doesn’t start off half bad, setting the tone for a cheesy slumber party styled romp before descending slowly and painfully into self-importance, offensiveness, and laughable incoherence.
Returning back a posh boarding school in the former Bragwyn Hotel for a new term, Rebecca (Sarah Bolger) reunites with her BFF Lucie (Sarah Gadon). Their bond – forged apparently by the suicide of Rebecca’s father and Lucie’s sympathy – slowly begins to break down thanks to the arrival of a creepy new student named Ernessa (Lily Cole) who seems to want Lucie for her own. Possibly influenced by her new crush and current gothic literature teacher (Scott Speedman) or possibly because she shares her father’s illness, Rebecca slowly starts chalking up the deaths and expulsions of her other close friends to the new kid, who might just turn out to be a vampire of something.
The film opens almost like a throwback to low-key 80s teen horrors like Lady in White and Watcher in the Woods, but with a less naïve approach to the main characters. These kids walk and talk like actual teenagers in the beginning and they smoke weed and drink like isolated students often do as a form of rebelling against the system. Even the initial creepiness of Ernessa’s arrival plays on some interesting sexual dynamics between Bolger, Gadon, and Cole’s performances, with Bolger doing a fine job playing paranoid and Cole letting her finely tweezed eyebrows do a lot of the talking.
But then things fall apart in a hurry thanks to languid pacing, an incomprehensible script, and some genuinely offputting material from a director who should honestly know better. The movie starts to get awful when it starts making the suicide of Rebecca’s father a focal point. Apparently, influenced by Le Fanu’s Carmilla, the frightened young woman starts to believe that one can become a vampire by dying without anyone around to witness it. This fate seems well know to Ernessa who preys upon seemingly endless knowledge of Rebecca’s backstory that the audience is never made privy to.
While that’s icky territory for anyone who has ever had to deal with potential teen suicide, the film doesn’t even bother to make Rebecca seem depressed enough to follow through. If that’s not enough, it’s easy to pinpoint the part where the audience turns on the film once in for all from the audible groans let out from patrons in the preview screening. That’s when, for no reason, Speedman’s teacher tries to force himself upon her. I would say “Whoops! Spoilers!” but the icky subplot or what even happens to the teacher are never brought up again.
A lot of things are never explained despite being seemingly important, like the nature of Lucie’s eating disorder, how “vampires” work in this bizzaro world, why Ernessa’s room reeks and is filled with moths and how she sleeps in the basement without no one noticing, why some of the characters have to die while others are simply sent away, why Rebecca’s father actually killed himself, if Rebecca really is hallucination or Harron’s just having a go with the audience, why none of the teachers seem to be able to put two and two together, why Rebecca only talks to her mother once while home for Christmas, and probably many others that I’ve thankfully forgotten about over this eternally long 85 minutes that feels like six hours by the 45 minute mark.
Harron still has an eye for visuals and the design of the film looks creepy enough to work. The cast does try their best with what they have to work with, but the performances suffer because of what they actually have to say and do. There’s really no faulting these guys for playing things as they’re written on the page, but the blame in that department rests firmly on Harron’s shoulders since she paced and wrote the film. There’s really no reason why this shouldn’t have been at the very least fun for teenage audiences, but somehow Harron found a way to make one of the worst films of the year out of such squandered promise.