Rebecca, a student at an exclusive boarding school, finds her life thrown into tumult by the arrival of Ernessa, a mysterious girl who insinuates herself in Rebecca's life. As her friends begin suffering a number of bizarre fates, Rebecca suspects that Ernessa's striking face conceals an evil straight out of the Gothic fiction she's studying. No one believes her. It sucks being sixteen.
They used to make movies like this all the time! Strong & smart performances all around, with effective use made of Lily Cole's fashion model poise and slightly otherworldly physiognomy as the secretive Ernessa. Sarah Bolger is as effective as Rebecca, a young woman traversing more dangerous territory as she comes of age. Happily she (and the viewer) have quite a number of signposts for her journey, courtesy some too-spot-on lectures on Gothic fiction and vampires courtesy professor Scott Speedman. But writer/director Mary Harron builds on and transcends these sleeve-worn influences, and shows a gift for atmosphere and suspense as strong as her grasp on the tribulations of young womanhood. It's spooky without being shocking, erotic without being explotative, and a genre film from people who know that horror is ABOUT something.
At the very least it's an effective 85-minute Gothic. In a better world, under the eyes of a Val Lewton, Mary Harron would make one of these every year.
(Programming note: this film is playing [in glorious 35mm] at the San Fransicso Film Society cinema, sharing a bill, like a good programmer, with Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale. I imagine these films, both blood-soaked coming-of-age tales, have much to say to each other, and recommend taking them both in together. Bring a teenager - these films speak directly and compassionately to the life of the teenager, no matter what they're rated.)