'Moth Diaries' Flames Out
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
"The Moth Diaries" closets a clutch of Lolitas in an all-girls' boarding school, the only male within hailing distance a lit prof (Scott Speedman) who gets off on teaching vampire fiction -- "sex, blood and death" -- to his itchy charges. Then a new student, affectless, pale as a ghost, strangely lacking any appetite for institutional food, arrives to pour fuel on this hotbed. Seems like Mary Harron, ballsy helmer of "American Psycho" and "The Notorious Bettie Page," ought to be the perfect chef for what could be a tasty stew of female libido, liberally sauced with the supernatural.
Sadly, "Diaries" never really steams up the screen with any psychosexual hijinks, and it falls way short of successfully mining vampirism as fertile metaphor for Sapphic love, Oedipal attachment, menses and wrist-slitting suicide! Surprisingly, Harron seems indifferent to any potential ambiguities in Rachel Klein's YA vampire/teen awakening tale: Are we following the diary of sad-sack adolescent, obsessed vampire-hunter -- or is our narrator a nutcase projecting her dark side onto a handy doppelganger? Truth be told, it's hard to care one way or another. Drained dry of tension and energy, erotic or otherwise, "The Moth Diaries" fails to frighten, titillate or otherwise engage the imagination.
Search: More on Scott Speedman
Sixteen-year-old Rebecca (Sara Bolger) can hardly wait to get back to boarding school, to chill with her posse of fun-loving pals. Their camaraderie helps her repress flashbacks of her poet-dad dead in a bathtub of blood, his wrists sliced open by razor. Especially tonic is BFF Lucy (Sarah Gadon), a glowing, animated blonde. You can see how much Becca is nourished by their physical intimacy, the stroking and the cuddling; she fairly drinks in her friend's optimism and normalcy. (There is, by the way, only one glimpsed lesbian embrace in "The Moth Diaries," and it looks neither sexy nor fun.)
When super-creepy Ernessa (Lily Cole), another daughter of a tragically dead father, enrolls at Brangwyn School, she almost instantly steals Lucy's affections. Becca's soul mate, mesmerized by her new homegirl's dead-eyed gaze, begins to mysteriously fade and waste away. Couldn't she just be anorexic? Not on your life: The lost child who loves Lucy is sure her rival's a vampire. A couple people who get on Ernessa's bad side do die -- offscreen -- though there's never the slightest hint that any jugulars are punctured. Doesn't matter: Rebecca's got the goods on the freaky chick with a name that conjures Sheridan Le Fanu's "Carmilla" or one of Poe's bevy of dead ladies.
There's no denying that Ernessa, the sulkiest Goth in the cafeteria, suggests a species of alien; something's really off, and off-putting, in the proportions of her kabuki face. The eyes, like matte marbles, are too far apart, topped by heavy brows beneath an over-high, rounded forehead. And that little red-rosebud mouth looks as if it was designed solely for sucking. This succubus rules Becca's nightmares, an etiolated weed who materializes in downpours of blood, speechifying about how wonderful it is to die, leaving behind complimentary razor blades -- just in case anyone had a yen to off herself.
Trouble is, Ernessa isn't scary; she's just dull. And so are the remnants of Becca's posse, who mostly think she's gone psycho on the subject of the new girl. Even Rebecca's brief moment of self-doubt -- is this chick really a bloodsucker or am I my crazy father's daughter? -- barely tickles our curiosity. Things heat up a bit, visually if not dramatically, when Becca and a classmate lean out a high dormer window to watch Ernessa, white as a moth in the moonlight, gliding along the roof's edge, then apparently floating through a closed window into her room.
On another hallucinatory night, Becca spies her vampire nemesis wafting about the school's lush green grounds in a glowing-white nightgown, her figure echoing the garden's bone-white Greek statue. As Ernessa rises, her outstretched hand elevates limp-doll Lucy as well, until the two of them explode into a galaxy of pallid moths. Well, you may argue, that sounds kinda cool! It is, momentarily -- but this lush theatrical doesn't come courtesy of a consistent directorial style, but rather the visual imagination of Declan Quinn, cinematographer extraordinaire. It's Quinn's eye for otherworldly light and color that gives this moth-eaten Gothic melodrama what fleeting life it possesses.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.