Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Dopplegangers 02 - Carmilla



Hey goth fans, it’s adaptation time! In the spotlight this month is a Victorian vamp-tastic classic, Carmilla!

Carmilla, the original novella, is one of the earlier literary incarnations of everyone’s favourite bloodsucking fiend (beating Dracula to the punch by a whole 25 years) and, as such, has been adapted many times for many different medium; stage, screen, Youtube series, even an opera. Grab your cape and prosthetic fangs and let this post take you on a haunted carriage ride through some of the more notable incarnations of this of the OG Lady of the Night.

Carmilla – Sheridan Le Fanu. 

(Illustration from The Dark Blue by D. H. Friston, 1872)
Carmilla was originally serialised in the short lived magazine, The Dark Blue, between 1871 and 1872 and later released as part of Le Fanu’s short story collection, In a Glass Darkly. (While The Dark Blue is little remembered today, in its day it drew some serious literary clout back in top hat times, with contributions submitted by Ford Maddox Brown, Gabriel Rossetti, A.C. Swinburne and William Morris). The tale is built on, by then, classic gothic tropes (desolate castle + alluring stranger + mysterious illness = awesome) but Le Fanu added some of his own ingredients to the mix to create something new. The most striking to the modern reader is the depictions on female homosexual desire. While it isn’t explicated stated that the two leads are engaged in a sexual relations and, in the Victorian era the physical boundaries of female friendship were marked differently than they are today, I mean, come on, the heroine wonders if Carmilla is really a boy in disguise coming to woo her, such is Carmilla’s erotically charge conduct towards her (lesbian subtext 4LYFE!). Other interpretations read the text as allegory of the political situation in Ireland, with Carmilla playing the role of a parasitic Catholic and our heroine Laura as the threated Protestant ruling class. It was said that Le Fanu was inspired by sources such as Antoine Augustin Calmet’s Treatise on the Apparitions of Spirits and on Vampires or Revenants of Hungary, Moravia, et al. (which sounds totally baller) and Samuel Coleridge’s unfinished poem, ‘Christabel’. Carmilla’s characterisation was said to be informed by Le Fanu’s experiences of living with his mental ill wife, whose death he never fully got over.

Vampyr (1932)

German/French co-production, Vampyr, is a loose adaption of the directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer. The plot concerns a student of the occult, Allan Grey, who, upon spending a night in the inn of a village, finds the place in thrall of a vampire menace. The film is dreamlike and plain weird in parts, intentional so; Dreyer said he ‘Wanted to create a waking dream on screen and show that horror is not to be found in the things around us but in our own subconscious.’ Its unusual filming techniques, such has filming scenes through gauze, have more in common with experimental film Le Chien Anadalou than your average horror flick. The trance-like imagery and disjointed narrative was met by contemporary audiences with indifference and confusion. After a screening in Vienna a full scale riot broke out after the theatre refused to refund punters’ money.  Vampyr was the director’s first film using sound. Dreyer still used title cards extensively; dialogue was keep to a minimum and was littler there was had to mouthed three times over by the actors in French, English and German, to allow for dubbing later. Most of the cast were not profession actors  either;  the village doctor was found on a Paris metro and our hero, Allan Gray, was played by a French born Russian noble as a condition for bankrolling the film. If that sounds up your alley, then the whole thing can be found for free on YouTube.

The Vampire Lovers (1970).

The first of Hammer Horrors trilogy of Karnstein films, The Vampire Lovers was one of the more faithful adaptions up until that point. At the time of filming, Hammer was suffering from one of its periodic slumps. Unable to compete with a new wave of grittier horror films, it decided to double down on the other strand in their cinematic arsenal: boobs. Unlike most of Hammer’s output, this story did not originate as an in-house production, it was brought to them by outside producers who figured a Carmilla adaption would sell well and pitched it the most appropriate studio. Hammer turns the sexy up to eleven including full frontal nudity and actual gay kissing. While not particularly explicit by today’s standards, it was considered fairly racy at the time. Keeping the film from become an exploitative shlock-fest was the character and performance of Carmilla (played by Ingrid Pitt), who was portrayed with sympathy and depth. This could be down to the director Roy Barker, who is recorded as saying he had tremendous respect for the source material. In addition, this version has a be-caped Peter Cushing beading the vamp and holding up the severed head dripping Kensington Gore; what more could you ask for is your 70s horror flick?

Carmilla: A Vampire Tale (1970)

Rock n roll! This telling of Carmilla adapted the novella into a rock/chamber opera., It was created by the innovative East Village theatre company La MaMA, written by Wilford Leach and scored by Ben Johnson. The two main characters, Laura and Carmilla, spend most of the play sat next to each other on a couch, singing into microphones. The rest of the characters are played by wooden faces carved into the couch – the actors covered their face in wood-like make up and peered through holes whilst crouching down behind the couch. It was praised for its use of multi-media stage design, with film projections running in the background through most of the play. It had a fair amount of success too, enough at least to take it on tour through Europe. Today the production has something of a cult following; recordings of the play surface in second hand markets from time to time, but it is a bit of a collector’s item now. Definitely due for a revival.

Carmilla – webseries (2014)

Brining the legacy of Carmilla into bang up to date is Canadian webseries Carmilla, first screened on YouTube. The series ran for three seasons and one mini ‘pre-season’ and has been made into a feature length film, which, at the time of writing, should have just been released. The action takes place in a Silas University (a nod to Le Fanu’s novel ‘Uncle Silas’) where Laura, a journalism freshman, begins keeping a vlog (I love that YouTube and other such online platforms have given us the opportunity to reshape the epistolary novel in a way that makes sense to modern audiences and that creators seem hellbent on reviving classical literature as the testing ground for this new medium). Soon after started the vlog, Laura’s roommate disappears and is replaced by the mysterious Carmilla. Carmilla is a vampire very much in the Byronic mould, dark and just a wee bit moody. You would too if you were at three hundred and odd years old and still forced to do your mother’s bidding, in this case, bringing her all the nice young girls you meet to be used as human sacrifices. The two fall in love, there’s intrigue, character growth, all that good stuff. In a radical break with the previous adaptations, the relationship between the two leads isn’t used as evidence of Carmilla as demonic and ‘other’ nature; Carmilla’s sexuality just is, with other elements in the show providing the threat to the safety of the heroine. The series has been praised by, well, everyone, but has found a special place in the hearts of many in the LGBTQ community for its positive depictions of queer identity. It’s free on YouTube, so go check it out.

Honourable Mentions

Polish TV version (1982) – Super hard to find rendition of the novella, this black and white Polish adaptation is overall pretty faithful to the original text. This adaptation brings Laura’s isolation to the fore; she is starved for interest and pleasure and this need informs how she interacts with Carmilla. The ending strongly hints that Laura too becomes a vampire.

Nightmare Classics: Carmilla (1989) – Ever wanted to know what Carmillla would be like if it was set in the antebellum south? Now you can! This American mini-series focuses more heavily on the dysfunctional relationship between Laura and her father and lets her play a much more active role, eventual being the one dispatch Carmilla.

Castlevania (1987 – 2014) – Couldn’t resist mentioning this one. Carmilla is a recurring boss character in the Castlevania franchise and acts as the henchman of Dracula (she is waaaaay into Dracy). Which kinda sucks as Carmillla is an Independent Woman TM, but does mean that she is wicked powerful. She loves bathing in blood, organised witch trials for those who wouldn’t side with her Dark Lord and in one incarnation drops fireballs at you whilst draped naked over a floating skull. That is just cool.



Claire Healey is a lover of all things dark, moody, and eye-liner-y, and, if you couldn't tell, a huge fan of Carmilla and its many adaptations. Sheffield Gothic is firm in the belief that Claire does not go around befriending women in the hope that they will join her in vampiric endeavours.

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