The vampire has gone through countless incarnations and served many roles in art, but sexuality is a key component to this figure’s identity that is prevalent in all its forms from Dracula to Twilight. That sexual energy is the heartbeat in Carmilla, the recent adaptation of the novel by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu from writer/director Emily Harris. It is a moody piece that delights in its sensual, shadowy aesthetics and reexamination of the vampire through the lens of female and queer identities.
The plot concerns young Lara, a lonely young woman who lives a subdued life of submission, isolated from the world beyond her family estate. She is contained and controlled Miss Fontaine, the domineering governess who supervises Lara during her widowed father’s absences. Fontaine employs corporeal punishment whenever the young woman transgresses against the conformity that is being taught to her such as using her “sinister” left hand instead of her right or reading her father’s books. The only glimmer of joy Lara seems to have is the anticipation of a friend named Charlotte coming to stay with her for a few months, though even this is taken away when Charlotte comes down with a mysterious illness. However, an accident in the middle of the night brings to the dreary home a mysterious young woman whom asks Lara for a name and is given Carmilla. From there, the relationship between the girls deepens and grows, much to the dismay of the governess, who suspects that something has been invited into Lara’s life that never should have been.
Carmilla is certainly not the film for the “gore-hound” or jump scare horror enthusiasts. Instead, this picture embraces the roots of its gothic origins. A gloomy atmosphere permeates the film by way of the wonderful cinematography by Michael Wood. Exterior scenes shot during the day have a fluid, dreamlike quality with a significant streak of bleakness. There is plenty of healthy green landscape, but nature is given a distinct mortality and inhumanity in the form of dead birds and insects that serves the film well in giving viewers possible foreshadowing, or, at least, a warning of the true nature of things outside the knowledge of unassuming characters. Dimly lit scenes in the film’s first act, shadows and candlelight frame and accent the faces of the characters in a way that separates them from one another and suppresses emotion. Later, scenes with the same blocking and dim lighting, only now involving Lara and Carmilla together, take on a new meaning of intimacy and the freedom that is often best served by the darkness.
In dimly lit scenes during the film’s first act, shadows and candlelight frame and perfectly accent the faces of the characters that suppresses emotion and separates characters from one another. Later, scenes just as dimly lit, only now involving Lara and Carmilla together, take on a new meaning of intimacy and the freedom that is often best served by the darkness.
Perhaps the most commendable and satisfying feature of the film is its sound design and editing. The score is highlighted by harsh, heavy strings that intrude on and take up space in scenes, almost as though the anxieties of the cast are manifesting themselves audibly, reminiscent of horror or thriller pictures of a 30s or 40s vintage. The quieter moments of Carmilla are particularly admirable. During scenes wherein Lara is in the company of her father and Miss Fontaine, the silence is deep and uncomfortable, broken only ever so slightly by the smallest and typically most innocuous sounds such as pages rustling, silverware use, or even breathing. It is not surprising, then, that these deep silences are when Lara appears most isolated and introverted—the silence is Lara’s silencing at the hands of her governess, with the little clatters that break in sharing their rebelliousness with Lara’s own.
However, much like how candlelit scenes exist differently after Carmilla’s arrival, so does the silence and sounds as now here is where the growing tension between Fontaine and Lara lies, in these uninterrupted muted conversations where the struggle between the two characters plays out in the small, mundane sounds. One scene in particular plays out very successfully in this way, when Lara is late for breakfast after a night shared with Carmilla—a night Miss Fontaine seems very aware of. Not much is said, things remain hushed between the two, though the audience is clued in to Miss Fontaine’s anger by the fierce sound of her butter knife against her toast. It is remarkable how this film builds its tension through the relationship of silence and mundane sound.
This intimacy between Lara and Carmilla is interesting in the context of the film’s relationship with its source material and the vampire subgenre of horror. Harris is less concerned with straight adaptation with her script that she is with taking inspiration from the influential 1872 novel. The atmosphere and vampire lore remain intact, but the liberties taken allow for updates to the narrative and its implications. In this way, Harris opens up the possibilities and potential of this story and these characters to new interpretations and refinement.
Carmilla is depicted as a monster in the novel. The sexuality she exudes, and stirs in Lara, is seen as immoral and abhorrent, which is in line with contemporary views on homosexuality. This trope would remain common in all female vampire tales for years to come, such as in Dracula’s Daughter. However, to dig deeper into the capabilities of the vampire through the lens of modern sensibilities, Harris resists the antiquated stereotypes of the fiendish lesbian vampire and innocent, virginal victim. Instead, Harris employs the vampire as an agent of freedom and awakening.
This adaptation begins by establishing Lara as being rebellious, taking every opportunity she can to commit little transgressions against the standards being forced upon her, and a big part of this rebellion her curiosity and sexuality. Lara reads her father’s forbidden medical books because she is intrigued by her body, and it is strongly suggested that she is attracted to her ill pen pal. Lara’s immediate connection and attraction to Carmilla, then, is less sinister and appears to be more of a natural step towards Lara’s awakening. Carmilla does not trap Lara in a web because Lara has already been having these feelings. She is a willing participant in this strange relationship, for better or worse.
For better or worse, perhaps, is where the film shallows out some. The film does a wonderful job of making Lara an interesting, complex character whose sexual interest in her home’s strange and beautiful visitor is not about submission but about breaking free from the submission of her family and their expectations. When the film focuses solely on Lara, it’s never about a dark side of sexuality, but about how the people around this young woman panic at the strength of her burgeoning femininity, which is a timely and timeless theme. However, it is never made quite clear how benevolent or malevolent Carmilla is.
Devrim Lingnau plays the character with an uneasy vagueness, simply existing to be with Lara. Scenes like the one wherein Lara dreams she is being gutted by her new friend have this same vagueness—are these signs of danger or Clive Barker-esque metaphors for sensuality through understanding of one’s body? Lara’s illness after her first intimate encounter with Carmilla confounds this matter even further, making the mystery of this vampire a touch difficult to decipher. It’s possible that this ambiguity is exactly what Harris intended, but it doesn’t serve this adaptation’s coming of age narrative of repression and fear of female sexuality as well as it would have if the writer/director had leaned a bit more critically on the Carmilla character. This, unfortunately, may leave viewers with the sense that the plot has thinned out too much during its final act, but the film’s finale has much to say visually about the effect of this strange relationship will have on young Lara going forward. However, the character’s eerie, ethereal presence cannot be denied.
Carmilla is a slow burn that is maybe light on the scares but heavy on the atmosphere. In its NYC debut this year at the 4th annual Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, this film flew far under the radar, regrettably not garnering as much attention as many other films in the lineup this year. However, the film has an incredible upside. Emily Harris updates the metaphor of the dated novel in this adaptation and delivers a film that has a real mystique. It is beautifully shot, sonically satisfying, and effectively explores the queer capabilities of the vampire tale. Carmilla will be right at home alongside the breed of indie-horror such as Midsommar that rely less on scares but use the genre to create an atmosphere and provide an empathetic vehicle of dread or otherness to deliver offbeat, creepy stories to audiences.
Jesse Berberich | Twitter: @JesseBerberich