Thursday, May 30, 2013

'The Moth Diaries' (2011) directed by Mary Harron

The teen lesbian schoolgirl vampire genre isn't the most fruitful of pastures if you want a high minded night of culture.  But if you're in the mood for a boatload of camp, terrible acting, women in their early thirties playing schoolgirls and buckets of discount fake blood you're usually in luck.  It just depends what kind of mood you're in; some nights you want cinematic filet mignon, some nights you want a kebab.  Unfortunately The Moth Diaries is neither  haute cuisine nor fast food, it's more like chewing through polystyrene: flavourless, difficult to digest and ultimately pretty bad for you.

The Moth Diaries, written and directed by American Psycho director Mary Harron is adapted from the book of the same name by Rachel Klein.  There's a promising get a countryside boarding school full of hormonal rebellious teenagers who may or may not be lesbians and a mysterious new girl who may or may not be a vampire.  

Sarah Bolger as Rebecca busy being unlikeable.
Our protagonist is Rebecca (Sarah Bolger) who's returning to school after the suicide of her father.  She's apparently on the road to recovery, thanks to the close friendship of her BFF Lucy (Sarah Gadon).  Her clique are mutually supportive and the boarding school appears to be teenage girl paradise, staffed by hunky and buff poetry teachers, with marijuana and booze apparently easily available and even a room where they can get together and play Rock Band. 

Into this paradise comes the fly (moth?) in the ointment.  New girl Ernessa (Lily Cole) is tall, creepy, has pale skin, long black hair, weird as hell eyebrows and looks like a vampire.  Coincidentally, in Rebecca's literature class they've moved onto the gothic horror genre, which spends a long time talking about what vampires are.  Rebecca naturally soon suspects that Ernessa is totally a vampire of some kind.  This new vampire bitch has transformed Lucy from Sarah's BFF to a BF, with the strong likelihood of ending up as, horror of horrors, an F.  Lucy spends all her spare time hanging round with Ernessa now, the only logical conclusion being that Ernessa is like, totes a vampire or something, yah?

Lily Cole as Ernessa.  Those eyebrows!  I guess they're trying to make her look like a moth?
Admittedly Sarah's social circle is disintegrating pretty quickly.  One girl went bananas on crack (which may or may not have been some kind of magic crack) and threw a chair through her bedroom window, another has developed eating disorders and one fell out of a bedroom window.  This all builds up into a towering case of paranoia for Rebecca.  She seems to spend her days entertaining suicidal thoughts of her own, wandering around in a dazed, hallucinogenic nightmare state and maniacally telling teachers:  "Ernessa is EVIL!  She must be stopped!  She's bad!".

The fact that Ernessa is obviously a vampire yet never does anything overtly supernatural that couldn't be explained by Rebecca going a bit loopy could be an interesting bit of plotting.  If there was a twist that Ernessa is actually just a regular, if slightly spooky, girl and Rebecca has just gone off the deep end it would be quite a neat little story.  Unfortunately despite the film repeatedly nudging us towards this conclusion it quietly chickens out towards the end, leaving me sitting that unhappily thinking "that's it?".

I'd hazard a guess that the nature of Ernessa and the sanity of our protagonist was intended to be a little less opaque, but this aspect of the film suffered critical wounds in the editing room.  Even though film is only 82 minutes long you get the feeling we're skipping over vast chunks of narrative.  We get conversations about terms having passed, yet there's no clear passing of time within the film to keep track of.  Despite these jumps in time, The Moth Diaries is still glacially paced, half-heartedly teasing us with the promise of reveals that never really come, character development that stops mid-arc and the farcically crap non-ending.

A lot of this can be laid at the door of the cast.  Sarah Bolger as our heroine is just awful; when asked to summon suicidal misery she manages a sniffy petulance, when needed to show desperation she manages a mild huff.  Her Rebecca is bizarrely unrelatable, self-obsessed and meanly gossipy. When her friends abandon her for the far more interesting Ernessa it's very understandable.  Ah so what if she is an evil vampire? At least she's not a moaner.  So Lily Cole gets fares a little better, largely skating by on her otherworldly looks, her blank, sinister scare working well for the character.    It's when she opens her mouth that things go downhill, the script being fascinatingly unwieldy.

As writer/director, Mary Harron must bear the most responsibility for this mess.  These characters simply don't act like human beings, let alone teenage girls.  The dialogue feels like a middle-aged person's vague idea of how teenagers speak and frequently lapses into blithe, obvious exposition.  Two examples: Rebecca moans, "Something terrible is happening. It's like she's invading my mind..." or after Ernessa appears to walk through a window "Did you see that, she walked through a window".  Yes.  We did see that.  It happened about 15 seconds ago.  

Something terrible must have happened to Harron after American Psycho.  Whatever it was,  all of her directorial talent has drained away.  Visually the film is dull as hell, which, considering the film takes vague cinematographic inspiration from early Polanski and Kubrick's The Shining is quite remarkable.  There's even some powerfully lame looking high saturation, high contrast dream sequences which look like someone has popped on a filter in Adobe After Effects and gone off to the pub for the rest of the day.

But perhaps the most egregious crime is it squanders the trashy potential of the teen lesbian schoolgirl vampire premise.  Now, I know I'm essentially asking for this film to made dumber and flashier, but frankly if you're making a teen lesbian schoolgirl vampire movie you're already making an exploitation film whether you like it or not.  

Anyway, I want an exploitation film!  I want buckets of corn syrup blood and imaginatively gory deaths!  I want Mean Girls style bitchy bad behaviour!  I want vampire catfights dammit!  The Moth Diaries has none of this, committing the capital crime of being a BORING film about teen lesbian schoolgirl vampires.  Before watching this I didn't even think that was possible.  It's perhaps a testament to the sheer dullness on display here that it'd be a better film without any vampires in it at all. 


The Moth Diaries is in selected theatres this week, before vanishing back to video on demand hell.

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