One of vampire fiction’s earliest works, Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu kicked off the genre almost 30 years before Bram Stoker’s Dracula hit bookshelves. The story is about a young woman who’s preyed upon by a female vampire named Carmilla. It’s the prototypical example of a lesbian vampire narrative, which, since its publication in 1872, has spawned direct adaptations and inspired many others’ stories. In this latest take on the novella, writer-director Emily Harris strips Carmilla of its vampiric roots. It does carry the dark tone of Le Fanu’s work, but it’s not a horror film, it’s a period romance. By removing it from the vampire canon, Harris unintentionally retreats to the depiction of lesbianism that was hotly criticized when lesbian vampire films first began.
Set in 18th century England, Lara (Hannah Rae) is isolated from the outside world, living in seclusion on a country estate with her father and under the overbearing watch of her governess, Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine). The film is enveloped under a tapestry of religion and one Miss Fontaine follows to keep order, to the point where she makes Lara tie her dominant left arm behind her back because, to the governess, the left hand is the devil’s hand. This is the kind of suppression Lara is under. “I won’t let the devil into this house,” Miss Fontaine says, the devil being an allegory for sexual awakening. But this “devil” does arrive late one evening when a carriage crash brings a mysterious young girl into the household. Unable to remember who she is, she takes the name Carmilla (Devrim Lingnau) after Lara’s suggestion and the two develop a tender romance that turns into a tragic love story.
Up until its denouement, Carmilla is excellent. It perfectly captures the gothic aesthetic through its production design and creates a stillness through the emphasis of naturalistic sounds. The sound design is quite impressive throughout and grows darker and darker with the arrival of Carmilla, signaled by a hair-raising contrast between the booming crash of thunder and the aggressive banging on a door. For a film that isn’t horror, it is quite dark at times and uses body horror through the horrific visuals that the daydreamer Lara conjures up, signifying not only her intellectual curiosity, but her curiosity about her blooming sexuality. The cast, namely Raine, Rae, and Lingnau, work well together to create an intoxicating amount of tension—whether it’s sexual (the two lovers) or of animosity (Fontaine and Carmilla). The way in which the household and everyone in it changes with Carmilla’s arrival is interesting to explore; how an outsider can create such chaos. It’s actually quite humorous to see the effects that the destruction of routine Carmilla brings has on the home’s governess.
Vampirism has been an allegory for homosexuality for as long as cinema has existed, and for a time, the only kind of representation you could find for lesbians was in the horror genre. In fact, any kind of monster movie was symbolic of otherness because it was easy to code homosexuality in horror films without sensors noticing. Lesbian vampire movies were big in the ‘70s and discussing them is complicated. The violence against “the other” in these films is often unsettling, especially when you think of its real-world significance. It’s demonizing of both lesbians and women in general, but appearing at a time of sexual revolution provides some value and can be looked upon as an important piece of lesbian cinematic history. (Plus, they can be good entertainment.) As already mentioned, monsters in horror have always been a symbol for otherness, but we can watch Tod Browning’s Dracula and see it as simply a horror film about a vampire. You can look at these films as good vs. bad like every other subgenre of horror, like slashers for example. You can have films about monsters so frightening that the end result is earned and can be separated from any negative real-world reflection if you so choose.
That’s where Carmilla fails, because it’s not a horror film. It’s a period romance, so you can’t form that kind of barrier. It’s also not a vampire movie and that’s what makes it so damaging, because the real-world implications of its violence are only heightened even more. Carmilla, with her foreign accent, is automatically treated as any outsider would be: with distrust and suspicion. But she’s so mysterious, and having no knowledge of who she is, this distrust by the home’s governess doesn’t feel unearned at first. But when Miss Fontaine falls upon a book about demons that was in Carmilla’s possession, she begins to link her with all the illnesses that have been befalling young girls in the surrounding area. But despite whether or not Carmilla is even involved with that in this retelling, Carmilla never feels like a threat to Lara. Together, they are simply two young women experimenting with their curiosities. This is where you could say the patriarchy’s fear of female sexuality and fear of women as intellectuals comes into play. Because Carmilla’s depiction as a vampire is not clear and is a matter of suspicion, it amounts to nothing more than white Christian hysteria. And in one of Carmilla and Lara’s more intimate scenes, Carmilla doesn’t bite her as would happen in other lesbian vampire films. She doesn’t suck the blood out of Lara’s breast like in the novella. She’s not monstrous. So afterward, when Lara falls ill, the film gives off the unintentional message that Lara giving in to her desires is what made her ill—that homosexuality is the cause of illness.
Most lesbian vampire movies end the same. I mean, almost all horror films end the same way: the good guy kills the monster. But if Carmilla has no monster, the ending unintentionally delivers another message: that homosexuality is something monstrous that we must rid ourselves and the world of. Vampires are beloved in the horror genre, and I guess it’s all a matter of taste, but a lesbian vampire movie that’s horror, that depicts the vampire as absolutely frightening, that sticks to the tone of Le Fanu’s novel wouldn’t be a bad thing (Le Fanu’s vampire is actually a cat-like beast.) At first, Carmilla feels like it’s going to change the ending to fit its genre, one that symbolizes freedom and gay resilience, but instead, it delivers that unsettling violence that sparked critique about lesbian vampire films in the first place. (But, again, this isn’t a horror film, so it makes the violence even worse.) It could have changed the ending of the source material, transforming it into something of positive significance. Harris has been quoted as saying that her film is a story about “our tendency as humans to demonize the other.” It’s a tale that’s been told in different ways time and time again. How many more reminders of it do we need? The murders of Black trans women in the United States, the anti-LGBT leadership in Poland, the anti-LGBT pogrom in Chechnya—all the violence in the news is too much to bear. Narratives in a form of escapism don’t need to tell us that people think otherness is something that must be feared and done away with. We see that violence every day. LGBTQIA+ people, especially youth, need messages of hope more than anything. Not destruction.
Movie Score: 2.5/5