The precursor to “Dracula” gets a sumptuous if not entirely faithful film adaptation.
Before there was Bram Stoker, there was Sheridan Le Fanu. More than 25 years before the release of Dracula, Le Fanu published Carmilla, a serialized novella that introduced several of the tropes essential to vampire fiction, including sleeping in coffins, avoiding daylight, shapeshifting, and dispatching of a vampire with a stake through the heart. Carmilla caused a sensation not just because of its supernatural elements, but because the titular character is a lesbian, preying solely on women.
Whether by way of luck or simply relying on more classical storytelling elements (i.e. less lesbians), Stoker’s novel far outpaced Le Fanu’s, and became the sacred text upon which almost all vampire pop culture is based on, at least in some way. Even rediscovered by a modern audience, Carmilla lags far behind Dracula in adaptations, though both are rooted deeply in Gothic horror, with a sexually charged core. Emily Harris makes a commendable go of it with a time period accurate, if not exactly faithful version that portrays Carmilla as less of an antagonist, and more a misunderstood monster in love.
Laura (Hannah Rae) lives in posh isolation in England, looked after mostly by her rigid, fretful governess, Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine). Laura, restless and curious, is forced to wile away her time memorizing poetry, doing embroidery, and praying to be saved from everything from reading anatomy books to writing with her left hand. Her excitement over a girl her age coming to stay at her home for a few months is dashed when the girl falls mysteriously ill, and Laura withdraws further into her stifling loneliness.
A carriage crash does bring another guest into Laura’s home, a beautiful young woman who claims that, following the crash, she’s unable to remember her name, and allows Laura to call her Carmilla (Devrim Lingnau). Their attraction is both immediate and intense, as Laura gawks at Carmilla like she just descended from Heaven, and Carmilla eyes Laura like a cat with a bowl of cream.
Despite Miss Fontaine’s best efforts to keep them apart, they can’t resist each other, exchanging drops of each other’s blood in passionate kisses. Soon, Laura falls ill as well, stricken by the same malady that seems to be affecting other girls along the countryside, while Carmilla becomes more beautiful, more full of life, you might say, than ever.
Laura is desperate for companionship, and the sudden appearance of Carmilla, seemingly out of nowhere, switches on all sorts of feelings she doesn’t know how to handle.
Now, if you’ve read Carmilla, you might notice that a lot has been left out of the story. This isn’t a beat for beat adaptation. The novella is far wider in scale, with costume balls and ruined castles, and a villain that can shapeshift into a cat-like creature. There, Laura has a dream as a child foretelling of an encounter with Carmilla, who turns out to be ancestor of hers.
Only the core element of the story remains here, with some of the more lurid aspects toned down so that it’s closer to a romance than horror. This version of Carmilla is more subtle in her approach, as opposed to the “predatory gay” stereotype, and it’s rather more clear that Laura is attracted to her of her own volition, rather than through some mind control trickery.
Laura is desperate for companionship, and the sudden appearance of Carmilla, seemingly out of nowhere, switches on all sorts of feelings she doesn’t know how to handle. She’s not even all that put out when Carmilla exchanges blood with her. For all she knows, this is what happens what you fall in love with someone. She doesn’t know, because she’s been locked up in a genteel prison, where all of her free time is carefully scheduled around mundane tasks, and she doesn’t even get the courtesy of a knock on her bedroom door before someone barges in.
Miss Fontaine also is mostly a creation of Harris’s screenplay. The governess in Le Fanu’s novella was a relatively minor character, and as enamored of Carmilla’s beauty as nearly everyone else she encounters. Here, she senses that there’s something not right about Carmilla from the moment she enters the home, and she and the town doctor (Tobias Menzies) ultimately team up as a sort of combination of Jonathan Harker and Van Helsing. They also have a brief, passionate encounter, one that comes out of nowhere and then is just as quickly forgotten, a moment in an otherwise solid movie that probably could have been left on the cutting room floor.
Carmilla isn’t what one would call action packed, but it doesn’t need to be. The long scenes of daily chores around the house, the fussy way everyone goes about eating their meals, they all set up a sense of boring peace and reliable sameness, which makes Carmilla’s turning everything upside down just by her mere presence all the more jarring. It resembles nothing if not a bunch of rabbits being forced out of their hutch by a low-flying hawk.
If you’re coming into Carmilla hoping for a traditional vampire story, you may be a bit disappointed. There are no fangs, no flying, even the vanquishing of evil (or at least evil as Miss Fontaine perceives it) is tastefully done off-screen. Carmilla isn’t scary, she’s vaguely menacing, in the same inexplicable way that a person who makes you feel certain things you know you shouldn’t be feeling, but can’t help it.
We’re never really sure if the feelings Laura has for her are returned in kind, but Laura thinks they are, and that’s enough. A chillingly lovely closing shot suggests that, however Miss Fontaine and the doctor thought they may have “saved” Laura, Carmilla’s mark remains on her, in her, burned into her soul.