What If Carmilla Wasn’t A Vampire? Emily Harris’ ‘Carmilla’ Reviewed

by Rachel Bellwoar
“She’s just a girl. A girl like Lara.”

It might seem laughable, given she just accused Carmilla (Devrim Lingnau) of being in league with the devil, but Miss. Fontaine (Jessica Raine) is trying to say she’s innocent here. The wording gets away from her, however, and instead of contradicting herself, Miss. Fontaine ends up exposing her fear that Lara (Hannah Rae) is in league with the devil, too.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula might be the more famous vampire novel, but Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella, Carmilla, came first. Other film adaptions of Carmilla include Roy Ward Baker’s The Vampire Lovers, starring Ingrid Pitt. What makes Emily HarrisCarmilla different is the film never officially claims that vampires exist.

It uses the mythology, so the difference isn’t always noticeable. Most films don’t make you conscious of the fact that a character can see their reflection in a mirror. The atmosphere is still vampiric even if Carmilla is not.  A lot of that is in the sound design and Michael Wood’s cinematography. Every sense is heightened in this movie and it creates the impression that viewers are experiencing the world the way a vampire would.

Photo Credit: Nick Wall/Film Movement

This isn’t only when Carmilla shows up, either. Carmilla might be the title character but there’s something going on with Lara, too, and that’s what makes this movie so smart. A lot of fuss is made over Lara being left-handed. Miss. Fontaine, Lara’s governess, ties her hand behind her back so she has to get used to using her right hand instead, but Lara still favors her left and the reconditioning doesn’t seem to be working.

Not since Walkabout has so much attention been paid to bugs and the noises they make. The lighting goes from one extreme to the next. Sometimes it’s like the shadows are engulfing Lara, as in a scene where her face becomes the only thing lit. Then there are all the lens flares, both outside and when Lara is walking indoors with her candle at night. Visually, it makes the sun seem overly bright and aggressive, but Lara and Carmilla don’t seem too phased by the light.

Is Carmilla really a vampire then, and what does it mean if she’s not? For those unfamiliar with the source material, Carmilla is about lesbian vampires and in Harris’ Carmilla, Lara and Carmilla do become very close. In a vampire movie, though, Carmilla wouldn’t be killed for her sexuality. She would be killed because she’s a killer. Everything that gets taken for granted in vampire movies comes under fire in Harris’ version, because it’s no longer certain that Carmilla is dangerous, or that murdering her isn’t homophobia dressed as religious fervor.

In a vampire movie you don’t think twice when a vampire is killed (or at least there’s a precedent for it) but a vampire movie without a vampire means you’re dealing with people, not monsters, and what’s great about Harris’ movie is there are no throwaway parts. Some characters get less screen time than others, like the Bauer’s housekeeper, Margaret (Lorna Gayle), and Lara’s father (Greg Wise), yet in that time they still manage to surprise because they’re not stereotypes.

Carmilla is available to rent on VOD from Film Movement.

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