Out last weekend in the UK’s cinemas, Carmilla is a film that’s been on the shelf for some time; even before the pandemic, writer/director Emily Harris’ film seemed to be taking it’s own sweet time getting to an audience since debuting at Edinburgh Film Festival in 2019. Horror fans will know the name Carmilla from Sheridan Le Fanu’s classic tale, and much in the manner of the recent Lizzie Borden biopic, this modern take strips away a lot of the genre trappings to find a more intimate, personal and PC story than Hammer fans would expect.
So put aside thoughts of heaving bosoms, animal fangs and vampire hunters; this is more about lesbianism than vampirism, although a line is drawn that suggests that the society portrayed here takes a dim view of both. Back in the 18th century, Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine) is charged with the education of Lara (Hannah Rae), just as she’s coming of age as a woman. A carriage crashes near their house, and the arrival of Carmilla (Derbvrim Lingnau) shakes things up; is she a seductress of younger women, or a vampire, or both?
Carmilla takes the low-key road; it’s stylistically similar to the recnet Lady Macbeth, and that’s one way to dodge clichés; long scenes are devoted to characters day to day activities, including putting salt in their soup, and dialogue is scarce. Miss Fontaine’s discovery of some kind of erotic novel in Carmilla’s possessions is key, but it takes almost the entire movie for the characters to discover and act on what they find. That means we’re talking about an atmospheric but painfully slow film, that’s not for general genre fans.
That said, Le Fanu’s work always has a certain frisson, and Harris does a good job of refreshing the ancient, predictable story. If the final images seem hysterical, they’re at least the punchline of a long, slow-burning story that’s never quite been told in such a grounded, serious manner.
CARMILLA was released in UK theatres on 16 October 2020 and VOD from 19 October
Thanks to Premier PR for access to this title.