Carmilla, with its themes of sexuality, isolation, fear of and fascination with of the other, is an intense Gothic pleasure. The story works on many levels, and at its heart is a trio – a love triangle – of women representing innocence, awakening sexuality, and repression.
The action is set in late eighteenth-century rural England, in a beautiful house located in a strange and remote landscape. Anatomical knowledge is advancing, and superstitious and religious belief still co-exist. Lara (Hannah Rae) is punished by her tight-lipped governess, Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine), for the smallest of misdemeanours, and is forced to have her left arm tied behind her back in an attempt to rid her of her devilish left-handedness (a metaphor, if ever there was one).
One night, amidst much furious door-banging and confusion, beautiful Carmilla (Devrim Lingnau) is brought to their home, apparently the survivor of a carriage accident in the woods. With her arrival the story turns from the innocent, girlish anticipation of a friend’s visit, to the physical: sexual attraction, things which go bump in the night, strange and bloody dreams, illness, death.
The film was inspired by Carmilla, a novella written in 1872 by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. It was one of the earliest works of vampire fiction, pre-dating Dracula by some 26 years. Writer and director, Emily Harris, has said she was keen to remove the vampire element from the film, but it remains in the blood rituals that the girls undergo. Vampirism is such a well-understood metaphor for sexual desire and fulfilment in a coming-of-age story that it still fits perfectly; she has it just right.
The film has a real intensity: its world is small and there’s a cast of seven well-drawn and entirely credible characters. There are sublime performances from the three principal actors, but Devrim Lingnau is especially captivating.
Visually, the film is rich, rewarding us with some gorgeous details, most notably the close-ups of various insects and invertebrates which change as the narrative progresses. The exquisite opening sequence of a ladybird on a rose in full bloom evolves to creatures associated with death and decay, reminiscent of Peters Greenaway and Strickland. (The ants, who get their own credit, are also mesmeric.) Illustrated books and handwritten letters also contribute visual depth and the dependency on limited information and communication also contributes to the sense of isolation.
A palpable menace is created thanks to superbly murky lighting: there is midnight-wandering in both house and gardens by candlelight, and even in daylight the house is dark and unwelcoming. Some excellent sound design amplifies emotions, from the uneasy whining hum of the “unknown” lurking in the garden and woods to the crispy-crunch of buttering toast and clank of cutlery which so hilariously convey Miss Fontaine’s disapproval, fury and jealousy. (See also the hitherto unknown effects of noisy toast-buttering in Phantom Thread.)
All things considered, we know that This Is Not Going To End Well. The film’s concluding scene is no less horrific nor tragic for this and the spooky epilogue finely illustrates the effects of “othering”. Highly recommended.
By Karen Smith
Carmilla is released in select UK cinemas Friday October 16th, and released on demand in the UK on Monday October 19th. It was released last year in the US and is available on VOD now.