Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla is among the most influential horror stories ever written. Director Emily Harris’ de-fanged adaptation follows plenty of other versions of the novella, zeroing in on the ‘lesbian vampire’ aspect, but the result is deathly dull.
Teenager Lara (Hannah Rae) is isolated and lonely. Living with father (Greg Wise) and mean governess, Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine), somewhere in the countryside, the girl spends most days being bullied by the older woman, taking long walks in the woods and expecting the arrival of a friend who never shows.
When the survivor of a coach crash is taken in by the family, allowing her to convalesce and regain her strength, it awakens in Lara amorous feelings and they are soon reciprocated by the mysterious Carmilla (Devrim Lingau). As the girls get closer, the super-repressed Miss Fontaine suspects the interloper is a vampire, though one who can walk around in daylight and doesn’t seem to be very undead at all.
Filmmakers are free to adapt literary material any way they choose. Le Fanu’s tale has been adapted loosely before, going back to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr, Dracula’s Daughter, Emotion and The Vampire Lovers. Harris uses the novella’s title, but her restrained direction – restrained to the point of lethargic – removes nearly all the supernatural aspects and transforms the story into a snoozer, where burgeoning romance is scuppered by an unforgiving, jealous, bigoted, fanatically religious society. This is not Le Fanu’s Carmilla at all.
The cinematography and locations are suitably moody, especially Michael Wood’s realistic lighting schemes symbolising Lara’s emotional struggles between her faith and awakening desires. Bright and soft winter lighting is preferred for exteriors and interiors during the day and gloomy, shadowy candlelight used for the night. When we get down to brass tacks, though, it’s Harris’ concept and her script that’s really at fault above everything else. The performances are fine, with Raine especially good as Miss Fontaine. Yet, in ridding the story of pretty much all of its supernatural and gothic trappings, the film suffers from a torpor it cannot overcome.
Carmilla by Le Fanu is an incredible nightmare about a ferocious and evil predator residing in the body of a girl who manipulates those around her. But you wouldn’t know it watching this version. Horror fans will almost certainly find it a crushing bore.
Martyn Conterio | @martynconterio