The only thing worse than a bad horror film is possibly an arthouse horror film. This new Carmilla, a modern, revisionist take on Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1871 vampire novella, drops the sexy, exploitation/ titillation of the Hammer cycle of films that it ‘inspired’ in the 1970s (The Vampire Lovers, Lust For a Vampire and Twins of Evil) and replaces it with a more intimate tale of sexual repression. This is less a tale of resisting the temptations of vampirism and more one of the temptations of lesbianism. Which is fine, and this is certainly graced with great performances from a genuinely very good cast, but in losing the vampirism, its rather missing the point and clearly dropping all the horror for something much more intellectual. I’ve been here before with this kind of ‘modern’ horror film- its as if the film-makers are embarrassed by being associated with something as potentially puerile and embarrassing as a horror flick and try to make something else instead. But surely that’s missing the point?
Certainly, for the first half of this film -pacing issues aside, something I’ll return to later- the film works pretty well and promises much. Lara (Hannah Rae) is a sensitive teenager on the brink of womanhood, living a comfortable, almost idyllic life in the English countryside under the tutelage of her governess, Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine). Here are women of their time, behaving in a world that expects them to behave in a certain way, a formal code of conduct which Miss Fontaine seeks to instil upon her sometimes struggling, wayward pupil. There is a tension running through the film, between Lara’s suppressed emotions and Miss Fontaine’s own buried passions (she seems to enjoy punishing Lara with a caning a little TOO much?).
Into this awkward status quo is thrust the enigmatic Carmilla (Devrim Lingnau), the sole survivor of a nearby carriage crash who is brought to the house and given shelter and rest. Carmilla says she cannot remember who she is or where she is from, but is clearly a more, ahem, confident and liberated girl than she pretends to be, raising Miss Fontaine’s suspicions while covertly pursuing Lara with furtive glances, suggestions of a Sapphic passion which Lara clearly finds exciting. We hear second-hand testimony of local girls mysteriously falling ill and wasting away, and indeed Lara herself becomes pale and weak as she spends more time with Carmilla. It appears that this film’s vampirism is less blood-letting and more a draining of life energy from proximity (a little like Lifeforce then, but minus that far superior film’s wildly Hammer-like sense of fun).
The film has two problems here- the pace is glacial, and the grace viewers may give it to enable the film to solidify its sense of time and place soon turns to frustration once Carmilla arrives and the viewer is still left waiting for SOMETHING to happen. Indeed, when something does happen, that’s the film’s second problem- it doesn’t know what should happen, or the conviction of its own genre for it to happen, graphically or with a sense of horror. Again, that’s the arthouse movie either forgetting its based on a horror tale or too embarrassed by it. The erotic charge between Lara and Carmilla isn’t fulfilled or realised. Instead, the strict Miss Fontaine enjoys an impromptu tryst with local doctor Renquist (a terribly wasted Tobias Menzies who could/should have been a great Van Helsing-type adversary of Carmilla), which oddly seems to transplant the audience-awaited explosion of Lara/Carmilla’s passions to the supporting cast; a baffling decision.
I suppose what the film may have been getting at, was telling a tale of two girls finding a forbidden love together, and that being so ‘horrific’ to the ‘normal’ members of the more unenlightened society of the time that it was then turned into some demonic, vampiric legend – so the film shows us the ‘true’ story later bastardised into a camp vampiric horror tall-tale. If that’s the case, its a pity that it had to be so, well, toothless and boring.
Carmilla is currently streaming on Amazon Prime here in the UK