‘Carmilla’ Review: A Layered Retelling of the Unknown Classic Vampire Novella

Carmilla © Bird Flight Films

It seems that not many people are aware of the vampire novella titled Carmilla, written 26 years prior to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In recent years, the novella has garnered more attention and has now been adapted into a feature-length film, a wonderful debut from director Emily Harris. Though it lacks the strong sense of gothic vampirism that the novella carries, the film is a rich story exploring themes of lesbianism and otherness while holding this up as a mirror to modern times. 

Carmilla begins with innocent Lara (Hannah Rae) throwing rocks into a stream. We are introduced to her life in an isolated house, watched over by strict governess Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine). Slow sequences reveal that Lara is a bored and lonely young girl who is infinitely curious. She gets punished for stealing her father’s medical books and for not paying attention to Miss Fontaine’s lessons. When her friend Charlotte becomes ill and can no longer visit her, Lara becomes utterly depressed. Until one night, a carriage crash brings a strange girl to their doorstep. With no memory of what happened to her, Lara names the girl Carmilla (Devrim Lingnau) and they begin a friendship that spirals into something the rest of the house is unprepared for.

‘Carmilla’ © Bird Flight Films

It is clear from the beginning that this is a film about the fear of the “other.” In one of the opening scenes, Miss Fontaine tightly ties Lara’s left hand behind her back to prevent her from using it. It is later pointed out that the use of the left hand can mean the mark of the devil. The film takes its time setting up the rigid structure of the household that Lara lives within. During this time, we are shown extreme closeups of bugs and nature, signifying that everything is in a natural order. When Carmilla arrives, this order soon dissolves into chaos as Miss Fontaine and the other adults attempt to repress Lara and Carmilla’s relationship.

The novella surprisingly deals with early lesbianism themes in a time where it was not seen in literature. The film uses those themes to portray a coming of age story and the discovery of one’s sexuality. Lara is immediately interested in Carmilla primarily because she feels isolated in her home. Carmilla represents something new for Lara, a means of escape from the rigidness of Miss Fontaine. As the girls spend more time together, it is clear they begin to develop feelings towards one another. Though it follows the ideas of many typical coming of age stories, it is still refreshing to see a romance form between two girls in the time period of the 1800s.

Hannah Rae as Lara © Bird Flight Films

One of the few disappointing aspects of the film was expecting vampire imagery and themes and being given little to none. Although the novella is known for being one of the first stories written about a vampire, the film is quite subtle in regards to this. The story is clearly preoccupied with other aspects of the novel, and Harris is attempting to translate those into modern issues, but the lack of vampirism is noticeable when adapting a classic vampire story. However, there are still hints that Carmilla may not be all that innocent, and these clues are used to further advance the plot of fearing something different. 

Using Carmilla’s mysterious circumstances and the girls’ relationship, the film delves into how quickly people can turn on each other when they do not understand something. Miss Fontaine at one point searches the carriage that Carmilla was found in and she discovers a book on the occult. She uses this, as well as other clues that could point to her being of a darker nature, to turn everyone except Lara against her. From Miss Fontaine’s point of view, this seems logical and the audience is able to see her cause for concern. Though from a modern perspective, we know that these reasons are based on fear, especially stemming from religious superstitions of the time. 

‘Carmilla’ © Bird Flight Films

As we watch Miss Fontaine and the other adults act on their fear, we are given a mirror held up to today’s society. They act out on assumptions and use religion as a means of explanation and dismissal. When the film comes to its final few scenes, we are shown the violent and sad consequences of these actions. It is impressive how Harris weaves these themes together in order to make a commentary on modern times. 

Though the plot of the film is something we have seen before; a lesbian romance being derailed by the people around them who cannot tolerate it, Carmilla still manages to make a statement. Emily Harris’s attempt to portray the fear of the other is successful and meaningful. The backdrop of the 1800s and gothic aesthetics turn Carmilla into something new and refreshing. When going into this, don’t expect an explicit vampire film, but the one thing you can expect is an intelligent portrayal of human nature.

This film was screened at the 55th Chicago International Film Festival.

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