‘The Moth Diaries’ is better than its vampire marketing campaign

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Sarah Bolger. ()
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Simon Abrams

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Mary Harron, the director of the 2000 adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis American Psycho, is known in some circles as a horror film maker, even though this isn’t quite accurate. Harron (The Notorious Bettie Page, I Shot Andy Warhol) chooses her projects carefully, and American Psycho isn’t really a horror film anyway.

But Harron has since directed a 2008 episode of Fear Itself, ABC’s short-lived answer to Showtime’s anthology show Masters of Horror, and she’s also just directed another not-quite-horror movie. So IFC Films is treating The Moth Diaries, a moody bildungs roman that also features a vampire, as a horror film. In trailers and promotional images, IFC is using Moth’s most exploitable scene, in which a teenage girl is showered in blood, to highlight the film’s more generic elements.

Harron herself is on record calling it “a chillingly atmospheric horror story with real emotional depth.”

But it is a thoughtful and moving film, a coming-of-age story that could easily be classified as a character study, even if it happens to feature a vampire.

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Based on Rachel Klein’s novel by the same name, The Moth Diaries follows Rebecca (Sarah Bolger), a 16 year-old who is still not quite sure who she is.

Like all of Harron’s previous protagonists, Rebecca is trying to figure herself out. She takes it upon herself to record her thoughts on a regular basis in her journal, taking note of her interactions with her roommate Lucie (Sarah Gordon) and wraith-like new girl named Ernessa (Lily Cole) who nobody knows much about.

Rebecca starts to become self-aware through her writing after she takes classes with Mr. Davies (Scott Speedman), an attractive new young teacher. Davies stands out to Rebecca and her peers for a couple of reasons, chief among them being that he appears to be the only male teacher on staff. In Davies’s class, Rebecca reads Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla and learns about the gothic novel’s themes. Rebecca begins to notice that her life has become like the stories Davies describes and that the catalyst for this change seems to be Ernessa.

It’s important to note however that Davies does not know everything about what Rebecca is going through. Though Rebecca paranoiacally suspects Ernessa of preying upon Lucie, whose name evokes Dracula’s Lucy Westenra, she is wrong for thinking Ernessa is the villainess she appears to be.

This distinction is preliminarily established early on when Rebecca and Ernessa share a dream in which Rebecca is with her father, a famous poet who recently committed suicide. In the dream, Rebecca’s father shows her the gardens outside her boarding school. But Rebecca literally recalls this memory from a distance—she is shown to be standing a few feet away from her father, who addresses a girl who looks like Rebecca but is soon revealed to be Ernessa.

The complicated relationship between Rebecca and Ernessa is not the stuff of typical horror movies, in which supporting characters are there to be victimized. Rebecca’s story is actually similar to Valerie Sollanas’s in Harron’s I Shot Andy Warhol and Bettie Page’s in The Notorious Bettie Page. All three heroines seek to change how they represent themselves to the people they surround themselves with. They change the images and the tropes they use to describe themselves. This drastically changes the nature of their respective lives’ narratives. Rebecca’s life isn’t really a vampire story. She’s just trying it on for size.

Ernessa is an interesting foil in that she’s basically the externalization of many of Rebecca’s fears. But eventually, Ernessa becomes re-internalized by Rebecca, who is effectively Ernessa’s host. She’s not a creature Rebecca can easily extricate her personality from, but is rather a part of herself she’s grown distant from, a complex series of emotions that she needs to reconnect with in the hope that she can eventually feel whole again.

Davies is thus the character that The Moth Diaries’ more generic plot elements revolve around. Davies is not technically wrong for telling Ernessa that she’s probably just “seeing things that aren’t there,” for the sake of understanding her personal loss. But the feelings that Rebecca is experiencing are very real, and so is Ernessa. She’s a part of Rebecca but she’s also an entity unto herself.

In a similar way, The Moth Diaries both is and isn’t really a horror movie. It’s the very best kind of vampire story: the kind that uses monsters to give further definition to the human entity.