▶︎ Carmilla is released in UK cinemas on 16 October 2020 and on VOD on 19 October.
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872) is the second-most-filmed vampire story, but seldom very faithfully. Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), notionally based on the novella, takes almost nothing from it, while Roy Ward Baker’s lushly lurid Hammer outing The Vampire Lovers (1970) is unusual in sticking reasonably closely to the plot.
The high concept that’s usually embraced in Carmilla movies is the lesbian relationship of vampire and victim, though Le Fanu’s also stresses the ‘cuckoo in the nest’ story of a stranger taken in by and seducing/transforming/destroying a bourgeois household. As such, Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932) and Katt Shea Ruben’s Poison Ivy (1992) are nearer to the Le Fanu than such vampiric extrapolations as Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses (1960) and Vicente Aranda’s The Blood Spattered Bride (1972).
Writer-director Emily Harris shifts the story from Austria to England and introduces an unusual ambiguity about whether the peculiar and provocative Carmilla, taken in by the widowed Dr Bauer and his daughter Lara, is really a vampire or simply happens to seem like one. Dogs shun her, she sleeps late, her closeness to Lara leads to a red-lipped blood-sister pact (crucially, Lara tastes Carmilla’s blood first), and she’s mysterious in her origins. This is enough to persuade older authority figures, but perhaps not the audience, that she needs to have a stake pounded through her heart.
Lara’s governess, usually played as a minor victim – Kate O’Mara in The Vampire Lovers – is portrayed here with tight-lipped concern by Jessica Raine as a version of the narrator of The Turn of the Screw, jumping to supernatural conclusions informed by her own repressed desires and neuroses. Even before Lara might be tempted by lesbianism or vampirism, Raine’s Miss Fontaine ties the girl’s hand behind her back to school her out of being left-handed – a condition she deems satanic.
In its comparative lack of melodrama, its stress on casual cruelty, gloomy pastoral interludes, hints of night-time sensuality and lived-in/on-location period look, this Carmilla almost pastiches the BBC’s 1970s run of classic ghost stories, which extended from M.R. James and Dickens to Leslie Megahey’s Le Fanu adaptation Schalcken the Painter. The distinctive mix of folk tunes and sinister electronic drone in Radiohead drummer Philip Selway’s score also evokes such Carmilla derivatives as John Hancock’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death and Stephanie Rothman’s The Velvet Vampire (both 1971).
But Harris – abetted by a nicely undefinable Carmilla from Devrim Lingnau, the only person in this whole film who seems to smile, and then only slyly – shapes the material to her own purposes, delivering a quietly shivery, coldly angry fresh reading of a key gothic text.