CARMILLA – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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Born in the pages of Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1871 novella Carmilla, the iconic lesbian vampire that grants his tale its title has had a rich, complex and enduring life on screen that shows little sign of losing its appeal to both audiences and filmmakers. Directing and writing the most recent version is Emily Harris, whose reimagining sees her cannily shift many of the superfluous male characters in the original to the background, allowing the blossoming romance between the young vampire Carmilla (Devrim Lingnau) and wide-eyed, lovesick Lara (Hannah Rae, called Laura in the original novella) to take centre stage much more than many other screen adaptations.

While this love story itself is shown in far more sympathetic, respectful light than in both Le Fanu’s story and many other screen adaptations, of primary interest here are the creative liberties Harris has taken in her construction of Lara’s governess Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine). Less a fairly straightforward minor maternal figure, here she becomes something far more complex and intriguing: at times a bitter, repressed woman with a clearly unhealthy attachment to Lara that, at its peak, suggests a twisted yet largely unspoken love triangle of sorts.

Set in the late 1700’s, Harris’s Carmilla maintains fidelity to Le Fanu’s story in its basic set up; Lara lives on an isolated estate with her father and a few servants, but deeply craves a friend. When all the hopes that she has pinned on a planned long-term visit from a young woman her own age is cut short when her friend-to-be succumbs to a mysterious illness, Lara is devastated. But the surprise appearance of an enigmatic young woman via a carriage accident right near her home brings Carmilla literally to her doorstep, and a sudden and unexpected replacement for Lara’s new best friend is revealed. Despite the warnings of the increasingly manipulative Miss Fontaine, the magnetic pull between Lara and Carmilla appears unstoppable until rumors of vampirism come to the fore, triggering events that will determine the fate of the two young lovers forever.

Beautifully shot by Michael Wood and edited with a deft flourish by Rebecca Lloyd, Harris’s Carmilla is a lush affair drenched with ambient longing and a spirit of the gothic rendered in the film’s style as much as its nuts-and-bolts narrative, the latter riffing on Le Fanu’s original while bringing its own unique vision to life. A recurring visual motif of nature in a state of decay and close-ups of insects both speak of the inevitably of cycles and of the omnipresent link between life and death, a gentle reminder that Carmilla’s status as a vampire and subsequent association with the afterlife is not the automatic signifier of monstrosity that so many other adaptations of this story often set as a default. Rather, Wood plays up the sometimes-hazier spaces between not just of life and death, but love and hate, and intimacy and isolation.

That Harris’s background is more broadly in the visual arts and theater is of no small note, echoing the similar origins of Canadian writer and playwright Jordan Hall who penned the hugely successful YouTube web series adaptation of Carmilla which ran for three series from 2014 to 2016, and has since been followed by a feature film. Sponsored by U by Kotex, the award-winning web series became an internet sensation with its upbeat and proudly queer reframing of the famous vampire love story, maintaining not just the central romance between its Laura (Elise Bauman) and Carmilla (Natasha Negovanlis).

But again, where the web series flourished was how it – like Harris’s version – saw such rich potential in the figure of Le Fanu’s originally somewhat perfunctory Miss Fontaine. In the web series, this figure is recrafted from the ground up as non-binary tech nerd LaFontaine (Kaitlyn Alexander) who is a core part of Laura and Carmilla’s group of friends. Yet like Miss Fontaine, there is still the air of the protector to the character, and while the web series makes her a central ally, Harris goes very much in the other direction to offer a vision of Miss Fontaine that is far more morally opaque and deceptive.

We of course only need go back to Hammer Studio’s famous Karnstein Trilogy in the early ‘70s (The Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil) to see more classic renderings of the famous lesbian vampire story that emphasize the more sensational aspects of bloodsucking queer horror films. At the other end of the spectrum is Bret Wood’s southern gothic maternal horror-melodrama The Unwanted from 2014 that reframes the original story as a powerful tale about domestic violence, certainly one of the most daring and creative retellings of Le Fanu’s novella.

But both the Carmilla web series and Harris’s recent feature film version of the story bring an exciting woman’s perspective that each – in strikingly different ways – prove that the story of the doomed young lovers holds a seemingly endless potential for speaking about women, power, desire and autonomy. A beautiful and essential addition to the list of Carmilla adaptations, Harris proves again that some passions can transcend death itself. Carmilla, it seems, just refuses to die.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi-award-winning film critic and author who has published nine books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics, including the 2020 book ‘1000 Women in Horror, 1898-2018’ which was included on Esquire Magazine’s list of the best 125 books written about Hollywood. Alexandra is a contributing editor at Film International, a columnist at Fangoria, an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).