Trigger warning for cutting in the trailer!
October is one of my favorite months. You’ve got pumpkin-flavored everything, Halloween, and of course scary movies. I had heard about the film The Moth Diaries online, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Was this going to be a horror movie, or another Hollywood flop? The only thing I knew was that it’s loosely based off of Carmilla, a Gothic lesbian novella written in 1871. I’ve never read the novel, but I’ve read about it online. The trailer seemed interesting enough (and not overly sexualized), so I watched the movie. It’s thought-provoking, yet rather hollow. Sure, I wasn’t expecting a romance film, but there was a lack of depth to all the characters. The most disappointing thing about the movie was the dynamic between the characters, and the role sex had in the plot.
Spoilers and a trigger warning for sexual themes, nudity, suicide, and blood after the jump.
Our main protagonist, Rebecca, has been recovering from her father’s death for two years. She attends an all-girls boarding school, where she enjoys spending time with her friends. One day a new girl named Ernessa enrolls in the school and starts to hang out with Rebecca’s best friend, Lucy.
Rebecca gets irritated when she finds Lucy only spending time with Ernessa, and her depression gets worse. Rebecca starts to notice odd things about Ernessa, like how she never eats, and decides to start spying on her. Teachers and classmates see her as being jealous, but her anxiety gets worse as people start dying one by one. There is no evidence that Ernessa did anything to kill these people, but Rebecca believes firmly that she’s responsible for them all.
Soon, all of her friends have died, so she investigates the school’s basement where Ernessa likes to spend most of her time. She breaks in and finds a coffin and an old journal. We find out it’s Ernessa’s journal, and that she had been living in this building many years ago when it used to be a hotel. Ernessa’s father had committed suicide here, and in her grief, Ernessa killed herself as well. Rebecca comes to the realization that Ernessa was killing her friends so Rebecca would commit suicide. It’s unclear why Ernessa wanted her to die, but Rebecca has reached her breaking point, and sets the coffin and Ernessa on fire. The movie ends with Rebecca getting sent to the police station for questioning about the fire.
Overall, I like this movie. It never reveals if any events between Rebecca and Ernessa are real or just visions, and plays up how creepy the story is. From suddenly raining blood, to moths flocking around people, there are a lot of unique horror elements used. It was nice to see a vampire film that didn’t harp on stereotypes; there weren’t bats, crosses or stakes, there wasn’t even a scene where Ernessa definitely drinks someones blood. There are moments where you questioned Rebecca’s sanity, and whether or not Ernessa is a vampire at all. While the latter got frustrating as the movie progressed, it was a good idea, and more engaging than present vampire movies that blatantly show a vampire as a sex symbol.
Unfortunately, there’s a major problem with the characters. We’re generally told what great friends everyone is with each other, but there are only two scenes where we see Rebecca being happy around anyone. Most of the film is spent either making Rebecca seem crazy or “visions” with Ernessa. Rebecca complains throughout the whole movie how Lucy is her best friend, but we never see Rebecca or Lucy do anything alone together as friends. There’s one scene where they say how they miss each other, but they don’t talk about anything else. It’s one short sentence and the plot moves on. There’s no depth or personality shown through these characters either. We know very little to nothing about these friends who helped Rebecca with her depression outside of the fact that Lucy likes field hockey.
The most frustrating thing for me is how the film portrays sex. Once we meet Rebecca’s friends, one of the first things they talk about is who’s still a virgin. Not only that, but one of her friends, Charlie, has only had sex with women, but her peers say that doesn’t count. There are no characters that claim a specific sexually (or lack of) in the movie, but there are female characters that presumably have sexual relations with other women. Was there really a reason to have this dialogue? It just makes the characters seem shallow, arrogant, and homophobic. There’s little to no point in knowing that Charlie has been with women, or that the other girls don’t approve. Outside of that there’s no mention, or even a hint of sexual nature that Ernessa feels for anyone else. Even with Lucy, there’s no psychical chemistry shown after that night, or any mention that they see each other as more than friends. Surprisingly, any sexual scenes in the movie aren’t there for titillation—they’re hardly longer than five seconds. This movie doesn’t really touch on the idea of being a lesbian; rather it’s used as a plot device to confuse viewers as to what Ernessa’s intentions are with Lucy.
Though I don’t like the movie’s message about lesbianism, it handles the idea of virginity in a realistic manner. Later on in the movie, the plot just stops. Rebecca agrees to keep watch as one of her friends goes out to the woods to have sex with a guy. Afterwards, her friend says she doesn’t feel any different having “lost her virginity”, but she’s glad it’s over and done with. Continuing the idea that you have to “lose your virginity” to be considered normal is superficial, but I can appreciate that the movie makes a point that this girl isn’t any different because she’s had sex.
What I don’t understand is why this movie randomly focuses on sexual scenes, aside from following “the formula of vampire stories” one teacher talks about during the film: “There’s always sex, blood, and death.” They don’t explain any holes in the plot (ie: why Ernessa just arrived rather than feeding on people earlier), and they aren’t long enough to be considered “fluff”, so why include them at all? What was the message they were trying to give? Admittedly Carmilla is supposed to be sexual, but it’s intimate rather than primal:
“Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardour of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet overpowering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips travelled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, “You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one for ever”.
—Carmilla, Sheridan Le Fanu (x)
This quote shows Carmilla having a sort of obsession over her prey, a kind of interest that Ernessa never shows towards any characters. We see Lucy and Ernessa whispering, but they never have more of a physical relationship until the “feeding” scene.
This film could have been great! Not only for the vampire genre, but for LGBTQ+ representation as well. The subtle build of an eerie atmosphere in the film is reason enough to see it; I just wish that it had the substance to be something remarkable.