Mary Harron returns to the horror genre (director of American Psycho) with 2011's The Moth Diaries which centers around a ghost story set in an all girls boarding school. Rebecca (Sarah Bolger) is excited to return to school after feeling like her new friendships helped her immensely to overcome her father's suicide. But new student Ernessa (Lily Cole) and her strange, bewildering habits and hold over Rebecca's best friend Lucy (Sarah Gadon) begin to wear on Rebecca. Could she be as mentally ill as her father was or is Ernessa a monster straight out of the gothic horror novels Rebecca is studying?
CHANCE: Mary Harron? A crazy supernatural teen drama set in an all girls school? The narrative being driven forward by voiceover excerpts from a teen's angsty diary? I was on board so fast for this film. In fact, the trailer haunted me for weeks before we settled down to watch this one.
So, why was I so disappointed? I feel like Mary has a brilliant, stunning visual perspective that made the dream sequences and supernatural stuff in this film shine greater than they would have had it been a Lifetime horror film, but I guess that's my main problem with it: it feels a bit like a Lifetime horror film. The ending in particular felt very contrived and way too optimistic. I was expecting to see the survivor(s) of the carnage driving off in a convertible to the tune of a feel-good Natasha Bedingfield song.
It's possible that this a case of bland-ending, but it felt uneven throughout. Maybe it was how cheesy or unnecessarily demonstrative of its supernatural subject it became as the film progressed. Like I have some serious physics issues with the resolution and rules of the antagonist in this film. I know you seemed to enjoy it more, Ben. What am I missing here?
BEN: I've been thinking for a long time about how to put into words what I liked about this movie. I know after we watched it, I remarked that it was very gothic, but so were Black Sabbath and The Creeping Flesh, and I didn't particularly enjoy either of those. What I think it comes down to, is that the gothic horror I like is very much about nature, both its power and its beauty, and this idea that humans can't escape it. I never heard it stated this way in any class, but it gives me this feeling that since nature is beautiful, and since death, pain, insanity and sadness are all parts of nature, that there are then aspects of beauty to all of those things.
That's what I got from The Moth Diaries. The unwarranted optimism fit for me from that viewpoint. I really doubt things are going to go great for Rebecca after the end of the movie, but at least she got the resolution she was after. It felt like taking solace in madness to me. As for the demonstration of powers, I just took that as a genre homage. A way to telegraph that they were aiming for the mood of these very old stories. Sometimes they did overdo it though. I was both amused and rolling my eyes at how she was able to use Carmilla as a handbook to what was going on.
CHANCE: Honestly, I was okay with her finding a connection between her schoolwork and what was happening in her life -- it's an old, tried-and-true teen drama staple. Part of the problem is that I know Mary Harron could do so much better than this. She was able to keep American Psycho mysterious yet tidy, and I just think this film feels kind of messy at times. The nightmares and scares are inconsistent. Sometimes they're really creative and subtle, and they fit neatly into the narrative, but other times -- like with the conflict with the gym teacher -- it felt like I was watching a shitty MTV horror movie.
Some of the fantasy sequences were really beautiful and terrifying. The extra bloody dream sequence comes to mind as one that feels way too good for the movie its framed in, and that's what's most disappointing. The film just needed to eschew the cliche stuff it was doing every other scene, not try to explain every bit of the mystery of Ernessa, and tweak its ending a tad, and it could be so much better.
BEN: I feel like we've flipped our opinions on this movie with the ones we had on Birdman (Chance found Birdman enjoyable, I thought it felt way too full of itself). You did do theatre in high school, and I read Anne Rice books. Maybe each movie just struck different chords with us.
I'm not going to say that The Moth Diaries measures up to American Psycho. That movie's going to be studied for decades. I think The Moth Diaries was made with very different ambitions though, and I think it achieved some really cool things. What I appreciate about it was that it didn't go for more. I loved the scenes of Ernessa just taunting Rebecca. I loved the way the whole movie felt detached from time. I loved how anticlimactic the ending was. I don't think this movie is supposed to give you chills. I think it's supposed to give you a numb calmness in your chest that lets you really focus in on your heart and lungs and ask yourself, "Why does anything matter?" and that's what it did for me.
Chance's Rating: 5/10