The R-Rated The Moth Diaries is Mary Harron's new horror film.
To horror film fans, she's more affectionately known as the woman who directed the American Psycho film adaptation from the novel by Bret Easton Ellis. Her films I Shot Andy Warhol, and The Notorious Bettie Page are just as respected by wider circles, however.
The Moth Diaries is based on the novel by Rachel Klein Klein, which tells the story of Rebecca (played by Sarah Bolger in Harron's film), a young girl haunted by her father’s suicide who enrolls in an elite boarding school for girls. A mysterious new girl named Ernessa (Lily Cole) threatens Rebecca’s friendship with the popular Lucy (Sarah Gadon). Lucy falls under Ernessa’s charismatic spell. Rebecca turns to her handsome English teacher, Mr. Davies (Scott Speedman), and throws herself into his literature class and the Gothic vampire novel Carmilla. Rebecca starts to see eerie parallels between the novel and the dynamic between Ernessa and Lucy. Or is it just simple girlish jealousy? Dead bodies pile up and the line between reality and the supernatural blurs, and Rebecca decides to take matters into her own hands and get rid of Ernessa.
Harron really loved the way the novel portrayed the intense friendships between teenage girls. "I realized," she says, "that that has rarely been represented on screen. I was also taken with the way it used elements of the supernatural to illustrate the fears and anxieties of adolescence and the obsession with the body, the anorexia and self-harming."
The story is both a Gothic tale in itself and a celebration of the cliches of Gothic fiction.
"Sheridan Lefanu was a very interesting writer," says Harron. "His supernatural fiction is more ambiguous than Bram Stoker. Not so much in Carmilla, but in a number of his other stories you don't know whether the protagonist is truly haunted or just suffering from mental illness. The stories also imply that ghosts or demons are attracted by that pain. It could be that suffering, whether physical or emotional, creates a weakness that lets the supernatural in. The novel of the Moth Diaries has a lot of that ambiguity and I tried to keep some of that in the film.
"The book has a lot of gothic references," she continues, "Rebecca's best friend is called Lucy Blake, her rival Ernessa arrives suddenly from Europe, just like Carmilla arrives from 'the West', Ernessa seems to have a hypnotic power over Lucy. On one level The Moth Diaries is a re-telling of Carmilla but it's more ambiguous and it's as much a portrait of the pain and the craziness of female adolescence as it is a horror movie."
Visually, The Moth Diaries works as a Gothic creation, too.
Harron onset, directing Moth Diaries
"The boarding school is like the castle in the old vampire stories, an isolated and completely self contained world," describes Harron. Shooting in Montreal, the European-ish city provided the main school and grounds. "We found the former outside Montreal that had wonderful interiors and garden, and 19th Century school building in Montreal for the front exterior, entranceway and chapel. Montreal has a lot of great neo-Gothic architecture, which was why I wanted to film there."
The Moth Diaries also has an eerie color palette inspired by romantic paintings and photographs from the 19th Century.
"The production designer did a lot of testing before he found the right pale greens and greys for the walls. Before we started shooting, I brought in a lot of visual references from paintings and photographs, 19th Century painters like Henry Fuseli and Samuel Palmer, the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, the modern photogtrapher Justine Kirland who does these great portraits of packs of teenage girls wandering around the woods."
As far as modern-day inspirations for the film's look and feel, "We also watched Dario Argento's Deep Red. I think it's my favorite film of his and I love the way he has shadowy figures seen through frosted glass, so I tried to put some of that in the hallways."
Horror film fans always think of Harron as the director of American Psycho first and foremost. Harron is pleased by this, except when it creates false expectations.
"I think a lot of people want or expect something very obviously sexual and violent from me now, and The Moth Diaries is a much quieter film. It's closer to Picnic At Hanging Rock or The Virgin Suicides than it is to American Psycho..."
Klein wanted to make sure Harron kept the sexuality and raw horror of the story intact. She was not disappointed by the film version of her novel. "Harron," says Klein, "takes us straight to that place with indelible images and deeply moving scenes. Her young actresses have given themselves completely to the spirit of the novel and captured the dreaminess and vulnerability of our young selves - all this, while showing us how quickly the everyday can be transformed into a nightmare of paranoia and obsession."
The Moth Diaries is out on DVD April 20th, 2012, and Harron is already attached to her next project: Wicked Lovely, a dark urban fantasy from a script by Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands, Corpse Bride) based on a young adult novel by Melissa Marr.