The body count runs high at Brangwyn boarding school, but tension, surprise and viewer interest are the real casualties in “The Moth Diaries.” A commercially calculated grab for a slice of the “Twilight” pie, this adaptation of Rachel Klein’s young-adult vampire novel feels all the more disappointingly tame coming from writer-director Mary Harron, bringing none of her usual subversiveness to bear on the story’s shopworn gothic and Sapphic overtones. Title will do little to clear away the musty odor likely to cling to the film as it makes its way from an indifferent fall-fest reception into quick theatrical playoff.
Although Klein’s 2002 novel predated the very different “Twilight” books by three years, this late-to-the-party entry seeks to capitalize on the teen bloodsucker phenomenon that sprang up in the wake of Stephenie Meyer’s enormously popular franchise. Given the psychosexual edge that has informed her previous films, particularly “American Psycho,” Harron would seem a smart choice for a tale that treats vampirism as a metaphor for codependent relationships and adolescent carnal initiation. But the result lacks not only suspense and subtext, but also any genre-savvy awareness of how conventional it will seem to its target audience.
In lieu of the novel’s first-person diary structure, Harron’s first solo script uses voiceover narration to enter the mind of Rebecca (Sarah Bolger), a 16-year-old student at Brangwyn, an elite all-girls school secluded in some unspecified countryside (pic was shot in Ireland). Reasonably well adjusted after her father, a well-regarded poet, committed suicide a few years ago, Rebecca leans heavily on the support of best friend Lucy (Sarah Gadon), one of the few Brangwyn girls who isn’t there as a result of some past trouble or trauma.
So Rebecca isn’t too happy when raven-haired new girl Ernessa Bloch (Lily Cole) turns up, latches onto Lucy and begins to squeeze our heroine out. Soon other girls are dying or getting expelled — the token Asian (“Juno’s” Valerie Tian) is the first to go, followed by others in grislier fashion — at which point Rebecca rather quickly concludes Ernessa must be a vampire, not unlike the one in Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla,” the novella she’s conveniently been assigned to read by her hunky literature professor (Scott Speedman).
Granted, Ernessa makes it easy for Rebecca and the audience to deduce the truth, and not just because she likes to walk the grounds at night while gazing suggestively up at her classmates’ windows. Even without the black-and-white 1907-set flashbacks that spoil the mystery at a ridiculously early juncture, Cole’s frozen-stiff manner, deathly pale complexion and severely downward-slanting eyebrows would give the game away; she’d probably wear a sign saying “I am undead” if it didn’t violate Brangwyn’s dress code or the film’s generally humorless spirit.
Themes of female bonding, jealousy and smothering possessiveness are dramatized with the same lack of passion that attends the one briefly glimpsed instance of girl-on-girl action. “The Moth Diaries” has no desire to offend, and to that end, it seems to go out of its way not to raise shivers, even in a blood-soaked hallucination that tackily invokes Brian De Palma’s mean-girls horror classic, “Carrie.”
Carrying the proceedings effectively enough, Bolger remains an appealing, emotionally persuasive screen presence, aside from one scene that calls for her to weep and wail in too-obvious fashion; supporting thesps are OK but straitjacketed by pointless or one-dimensional roles. Color-saturated flashbacks to happier times further diminish the impact of the atmosphere-free lensing and production design.