By Glenn Harcourt

Carmilla, a film by Emily Harris (2019). Starring Hannah Rae as Lara and Devrim Lingnan as Carmilla. With Jessica Raine as Miss Fontaine and Tobias Menzies as Dr. Rehnquist. 94 minutes, in color.
All photos: Nick Wall.
Virtual screenings can be found in selected cities. (We recommend Laemmle’s.)

Plop . . .

As the film’s flat opening blackness dissipates, we see in the middle distance the back of a young girl, maybe fourteen or fifteen years old, standing on the bank of a sluggish river. All her attention is focused on one simple task: tossing stones, plop-plop, into the slowly moving current. There is perhaps a frisson of anger attached to her single-minded devotion to this childish game.

When the camera pans up to reveal her face, the story we read is completely different. She seems to carry the promise of a wonderful beauty, not yet fully formed, like the bud of a pink rose, just on the point of unfolding. For a moment, her concentration on her task breaks, and she looks into the distance, transfixed by something we cannot see.

Then she turns and runs off, once again just a carefree kid. Well, perhaps not quite.

Hannah Rae plays Lara, the lead in Carmilla (2019 dir. Emily Harris).

When we first see her, Lara (played with a wonderfully wide-eyed and delicate sweetness by Hannah Rae) moves so easily and naturally, that it’s easy to miss one obvious and damnable fact. She throws left-handed, and this left-handedness defines her right at the film’s outset as a cultural and moral “other,” an outsider even among her own family, a creature unnatural and insidiously prone to the snares of the devil.[1]


The task that director Emily Harris set herself in producing a filmed adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s iconic Sapphic vampire tale, “Carmilla” (1871/72)[2]  was not an easy one. Not only has the story been arguably ill-served on the screen, the original novella presents problems for the contemporary filmmaker.

Subject matter is certainly the first of these. When Le Fanu’s novel was originally published, the vampire was a peripheral figure in English literature. That would make “Carmilla” substantially important in the establishment of the canon of literary tropes that achieved its classic form in Bram Stoker’s iconic Dracula (1 ed. 1897). But what would have made it shocking was the Sapphic nature of the central relationship, that between the young Laura and her erstwhile vampire lover, Carmilla. Although the precise nature of their “love” for each other is never made explicit (as was the case even for authentic “lesbian literature” penned in the nineteenth century) the implication of the language employed to describe that love is hard to misconstrue. And indeed, the sexuality of the vampire’s predations carried over to Stoker’s Dracula, and became deeply rooted in the literary, and eventually the cinematic tradition. In the case of the original “Carmilla,” however, Victorian convention, even as its constraints were pushed by Le Fanu, insured that Laura was preserved pure and virginal despite the almost irresistible pull of the implicitly sexual vision offered up by her “friend” Carmilla; and also that she was insulated from personal experience of the final and excruciating violence of the end of the vampire’s existence. 

Today, however, the situation is quite different. Neither violence nor transgressive sex is off limits to writers and filmmakers, as they approach Le Fanu as a potential source; nor is it necessary for Laura to remain pure and virginal.[3] Indeed, quite the opposite. In 1970/71, for example, Hammer films, never shy about sex and violence, released their so-called Karnstein trilogy, comprising The Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire, and Twins of Evil (the latter starring the Playboy Playtwins Mary and Madeleine Collinson) which remains the iconic “contemporary” treatment.[4] Since then, the high school hi-jinx of the film (1992) and TV (1997-2004) incarnations of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (especially the appearance of the winsome lesbian, Willow) have produced innumerable simulacra, including 2017’s The Carmilla Movie, which finds the two twenty-something “lovers” living as roomies and bffs, negotiating the problems of the “big city” as well as the residual influence of Carmilla’s Karnstein legacy.[5]

Fortunately, there are other strategies for approaching the material. When I first saw Emily Harris’s Carmilla at the Mill Valley Film Festival in 2019, it was screened with a number of other films under the rubric “Queerish.”[6] What these films seemed to have in common was the situation of “queerish-ness” within a context that allowed questions of sexual identity and its construction to be seen as both intrinsically important and also articulated to other related and likewise important issues. In this case, the film functions also as a critique of the structures of Victorian patriarchy and the discontents of childhood that those structures encouraged.

In addition, there is the problem of form and the transformation of text into film. Like many supernatural stories of its vintage, the plot and structure of Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” are both highly artificial.[7] The novella is presented as comprising the published version of a manuscript penned by a young woman reflecting on a horrific series of events that befell her during her teenage years. The provenance of this manuscript is byzantine in its complexity; its editor anonymous; its original author dead; its internal annotations are given at second hand, yet they are apparently genuine and provide Le Fanu with important sources for the construction of his own fiction.[8]

Harris, on the other hand, has opted for a resonantly naturalistic approach to the original story, giving us access to a world that feels more Thomas Hardy than Victorian horror fiction. The presentation of the narrative is quite straight-forward, rooted in the rich loam of the English country-side rather than nestled within the shadowy crags and valleys of an exotic east-European otherworld, or the text of a classic fairy tale. Lara’s story is told from the camera’s singular point of view rather than comprised of superimposed and embedded narratives. The time-frame is circumscribed and Lara’s story unfolds sequentially within that frame; she is not given the luxury of reflecting on that unfolding as she looks back on her own story from the vantage of a future narrator or commentator.

Hannah Rae as Lara and Devrim Lingnan as Carmilla.

The result is a film at once solid and evanescent; intensely and delicately beautiful; its horror (mostly) understated yet palpable and omnipresent; the chemistry of its two principals (Hannah Rae as Lara and Devrim Lingnan as Carmilla) remarkable, especially for such a pair of young actors; the technical skill and aesthetic sensitivity of the design, cinematography, editing, sound and music are all excellent.

But Harris’s Carmilla is much more than just a well-told and engaging story with an affirmative if transgressive LBGTQ plot. It engages us also in a historical understanding of how the perception of its own central “transgression” has changed since the times of Queen Victoria, especially in the way it transforms its original source material, and about how that transgression can also be seen as a liberation, as long as one is willing to be the price.[9] It tells us something about childhood and its discontents: about how easy it is for kids to feel lonely and empty, and subject to damage that is not easily repaired. And it argues that societal and cultural pressures that distribute and apply oppressive power are to a certain extent self-governing, automatic in operation, and self-perpetuating.

It is easy to argue that Lara and Carmilla live in a world that is governed by a rigid patriarchy; except that Lara’s actual, lived world is “run” by her governess, while the male presence (and in particular the presence of her flesh-and-blood father) is attenuated and ineffective. By the time Lara’s actual father has worked out the story of Carmilla, the “problem” of Carmilla has already been effectively taken care of by those acting (legitimately or not) in loco parentis.

Lara’s governess, Miss Fontaine, played by Jessica Raine.

In keeping with Harris’s naturalistic bent, the action is generally quite concrete. Lara is punished by her governess for her left-handedness, for example, not with scriptural exhortations about the Judgment of Christ with its inevitable separation of the sheep from the goats (Matt. 25:41-46), but with the very material expedient of binding her left hand behind her back in a sort of reverse and perversely sadistic sling.[10]

This is not to say that religion is absent from the world-view of the family in general, or from that of the stern yet awkwardly loving governess, Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine). Rather, like most country folks of the late eighteenth century, she embeds that religious ideology in simple, direct physical action, action that, she believes, will keep Lara “safe” and keep the devil out of the Bauer household over which she presides with an (almost) iron hand. Her presence and its effect is especially important since Mr. Bauer is absent from home for most of the film, attempting to discover who “Carmilla” is and where she might actually belong.[11] This leaves Miss Fontaine, whose words and actions occasionally hint at repressed and turbulent psychological depths as the chief embodiment of [quasi-parental] authority in the film; and thus both a substitute mother and a catspaw for the domestic patriarchy embodied by Mr. Bauer. She is clearly not up to this task, and Lara (for all her sweetness) exhibits a willful, almost feral streak, which punishment fails to ameliorate.

Perhaps the most immediately striking aspect of the film’s naturalism is the pervading sense of isolation, both oppressive and alienating. Lara lives out her childhood in a world virtually bereft of kids. She seems to have but a single friend, Charlotte from the next town over, who never appears on-screen and exists in the film only as a longed-for and fading absence. Lara plays with no-one, and it is by no means clear that, as a young girl apparently approaching the incipiently sexual and relationship-driven period of adolescence, she has ever played with a boy of her own age. This isolation affects everyone to a greater or lesser extent; but its corrosive effect on Lara must be especially harsh.

Le Fanu’s Laura is also isolated, but as a character is buffered as well by her age (she is nineteen, and in every sense a young woman), the refined social expectations of her class, and the paternal yet intensely friendly relationship with her father.

Thus, when Charlotte falls ill, and her long-awaited visit must be postponed, Lara is primed for the arrival of a mysterious guest: a young woman (perhaps a year or two older than Lara herself) who arrives almost literally on the Bauer’s front doorstep as the result of a late night carriage crash in the midst of a ferocious thunderstorm, a mishap of which she is the only survivor.

Thereafter, the plot of Harris’s film unspools in rough parallel with that of Le Fanu’s novella. As the search begins and continues for the apparently amnesiac young visitor’s origin and identity, she and the wide-eyed Lara become fast friends, and then, gradually and inexorably, something more. Meanwhile, the sad news arrives that Lara’s friend Charlotte, so recently healthy and robust, has succumbed to a mysterious wasting illness. The particulars of her death (the progressive wasting away of body and soul, the appearance of profound anemia, the weakness as if from the inexorable draining of the will to live) will eventually come to signify but one thing in a story of this type: victimization by a vampire’s insatiable hunger.[12] But here, all remain, at least for a while, in blissful ignorance.

In Le Fanu’s original telling, that “something more” that springs up between Laura and her new friend is a “love” of increasingly salacious physicality, which the narrator recounts, years later, as having been at once wickedly entrancing and unconscionably repulsive. In the case of Harris’s Lara, the older Carmilla becomes the younger girl’s all-knowing guide as her mind and body blossom in their awareness of the sexual dimension of that body’s physicality.

The enactment of this relationship is at once a kind of childhood game and a deeply sexual entanglement both deadly and life-giving. Sealed eventually by the mirroring double valence of the ritual of blood-sisterhood, it is one of the film’s most powerful aspects. For example, Carmilla’s initiation of Lara into the “little death” of hyperventilated fainting could almost be comic, were it not for its obvious adumbration of the body’s approach to the actual physical climax of orgasm: an effect brilliantly evoked by the young Hannah Rae. By the end of the scene, the virginal Lara is thoroughly bewildered, and thoroughly aroused; and the viewer stares uneasily as if a voyeur at an illicit violation. And then there is the sinister challenge of Carmilla’s final line: “Now . . . you do it to me.”

Eventually, it becomes only too clear that Carmilla’s initially liberating exuberance masks a deadly snare by means of which she intends to literally drain the life-sustaining blood from her young victim, a victim so easily persuaded of her own back-handed evil that she gives herself up almost willingly, if not quite absolutely, to the wiles of a titillating if “unnatural” desire. The perverse shape of this desire comes to us in the form of several graphic dream sequences, stimulated by Lara’s interest in an illustrated anatomical tome that she finds in her father’s library, which provide the requisite blood-saturated violence.

And this, I think, points to another one of the film’s greatest strengths. Le Fanu’s narrator, writing from the reflective perspective of a more fulsome age, recounts the intensity of her experiences with a certain sense of detachment, and with the moral superiority of a fully informed survivor. Harris’s Lara, on the other hand, is caught by the camera in medias res, in an agony of unresolved desire and moral indecision. Radically alone in the world, she is left by her father (Greg Wise), the story’s one very real figure of authority and power, gone off in search of Carmilla’s elusive history, in the “care” of the governess, Miss Fontaine, who is herself a repressed and morally broken creature.

Very easy to despise on an initial encounter, Miss Fontaine proves of immense help to the director in evoking a world where the categories “natural” (as in the binary opposition “nature” – “culture”), “unnatural” (as in the budding Sapphic relationship between Lara and Carmilla), and “supernatural” (as in the vampire’s lust for eternal life facilitated by the blood-feast) are hopelessly intertwined. Indeed, it is Miss Fontaine who, very early in the film, sketches in the terms of the over-arching problem of life and love and death that will be played out over the course of the rest of the story. As she binds up Lara’s “unnatural” left hand and arm, she quizzes her young charge on the parts of a flower’s reproductive apparatus.  ‘What are the two parts of a flower’s carpal?” to which Lara replies correctly “stigma and style.” But as to why flowers have such bright colors and sweet smells, Lara’s response “to make them beautiful and lovely” is quietly, yet firmly dismissed: “No; to attract insects.” We see now a single rose in big close up, its still-opening petal edges already turning brown as a lady-bug scurries across its surface. Lara retorts: “So . . . to be destroyed.” To which Miss Fontaine replies that “part of the flower has to die” in order for the rest to perform its natural function. Out of death comes life which in turn must die so that life can begin again, an eternal and forever unresolved dialectic — eternally unresolved, that is, unless one accepts the vampire’s offer of a final synthesis: the life-in-death or death-in-life that characterizes the eternal (non)existence of the literally “un-dead.”

Compare this to Carmilla’s “unnatural” history lesson as she relates it in Le Fanu’s novella: “But to die as lovers may – to die together so that they may live together. [This is the aesthetic of a radically romantic poet like Byron or Shelley[13]]. Girls are caterpillars while they live in the world, to be finally butterflies when the summer comes; but in the meantime there are [as the film makes abundantly clear in a series of brilliant close-ups] grubs and larvae, don’t you see – each with their peculiar propensities, necessities and structure. So says Monsieur Buffon, in his big book, in the next room.”[14]

“But to die as lovers may – to die together . . .” This is exactly the false hope, the hollow if compelling poetry with which Carmilla intends to seduce her naïve young lover, as she has already done the dead and cast-off Charlotte. In Harris’s film, which over and again displays this kind of brilliantly focused inter-textuality, that lesson is further embodied in a poem, which Lara memorizes and recites as part of her education at the feet of Miss Fontaine: Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” (published posthumously — a fortuitous irony — in 1681). Like Carmilla, Marvell promises his undying devotion to his coy lover “had we but world enough and time;” but he, like she, is troubled by the fact that “at my back I always hear/Time’s wingèd chariot drawing near.”

For Carmilla [SPOILER ALERT], that “wingèd chariot” is a fatal knowledge of her monstrous heritage, which drives her on from victim to victim, pressing each lover in turn to “consummate” their relationship, as in the two girls’ final, bloody act of love interrupted by Miss Fontaine, lest instead of herself “worms shall try/That long preserved virginity,/And your quaint honor turn to dust,/And into ashes all my lust.”

So Carmilla’s final seduction of the beautiful innocent, Lara, ends in heedless flight from a bloody coitus interruptus engineered by Miss Fontaine and Doctor Rehnquist, whose preparation via a frenzied, brutish coupling of their own seems but an attempt to summon by sheer blind force of will some destructive power from the erstwhile life-affirming depths of Eros.

But this is not the entire story.

In many ways, Carmilla’s on-going seduction of the innocent Lara can be seen as a proffer of liberation from a cruel and gendered fate, a freedom from obvious repression at the hands of a blind patriarchy, and a cure for unendurable loneliness through the willing embrace of forbidden things. But that kind of liberation, at least so Harris suggests, always comes with a steep price, and by the film’s end, it is unclear exactly what lies at the end of Lara’s chosen path, perhaps indeed to die and so to live together with her forbidden love, perhaps something much more final and horrific.

Neither Lara nor the viewer will ever know. A slim, beautifully illustrated volume found by Miss Fontaine in the ruins of the wrecked coach seals Carmilla’s fate. After a single blissful night spent as run-aways among the spirit mounds that “mark the graves of fallen angels,” the two peacefully sleeping girls are discovered by Miss Fontaine and Dr. Rehnquist (Tobias Menzies); and Carmilla is dispatched off screen by a heavy wooden stake driven through her heart, while her traumatized companion can only watch and struggle and scream and scream and scream, until the cries of her agonized soul blot out all sound, even that of her own tormented anguish.

As we watch Lara’s father carry her limp and unresponsive body home, it is easy to wish for her own death, almost to pray that she be granted the companionship of her beautiful lover Carmilla forever. But it is not to be. In fact, she has been not just saved from an illicit love, but miraculously “cured” of her evil and unnatural left-handed bent; we see her back at the stream of the film’s beginning, tossing a stone into the flow with her right hand. But we also see her figure now facing us and very small, across an expanse of water. She is alive perhaps, but lost to us and (I feel sure) to everyone else as well. She may still live on Earth; she may even grow, and learn, and say her prayers, and become a broken woman like Miss Fontaine; but she lives forever in a world that his not her own, empty and desolate and without love.

And Carmilla?  Her evil has been effectively effaced. She will neither corrupt nor liberate another young and innocent lover; she will never initiate another into the sisterhood of life’s shared blood. Yet she seems at the end to be at peace, unlike the film’s audience, who has awakened from a dream or a lesson, and cannot again so easily be put back to sleep. Also alone, Carmilla has perhaps achieved what all along she has alluded to as her final goal: a liminal (non)existence in a place that is literally in-between. Neither heaven nor hell, both of which she has contemptuously repudiated; but rather the endless stretch of a barren land beyond all suffering and ecstasy, all pleasure and pain, what Marvell described and she at the end embraced, the “Deserts of vast eternity.”

[1] About 10% of the world’s population is left-handed by genetic predisposition. Across time and cultures, the condition has been viewed as both a blessing and a curse, as even a glance at the Wikipedia entry for “left-handedness” will demonstrate. Within the orthodox European, Christian tradition its implication is almost entirely negative.

[2] “Carmilla” was first published serially in four successive numbers of The Dark Blue (vols. 2-3) from December 1871 – March, 1872. It was then re-issued in Le Fanu’s 1872 collection, In a Glass Darkly. References here are taken from Sheridan Le Fanu, In a Glass Darkly, edited and with an introduction and notes by Robert Tracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[3] In fact, the increasing academic importance of LGBTQ Studies, has led to the growth of a virtual cottage industry devoted to studies exploring what we might refer to as the queering of the vampire canon. For an introduction to this literature, see the material referenced and linked here.

[4] As is so often the case in film “adaptations” of literary material, the direct influence of Le Fanu is hard to trace; but Karnstein refers us to the deep historical background of Le Fanu’s story: the fact that the original evil descends from the figure of Mircalla, Countess of Karnstein, whose ancestral castle is the site of the final climax. See also Le Fanu, “Carmilla,” in In a Glass Darkly, 271-273.

[5] The Carmilla Movie was itself a direct continuation of the KindaTV 121-episode web-series Carmilla, available for streaming through YouTube. Its ethos is perhaps best summed up in this line, delivered by Laura to her buddy Carmilla: “If this [scheme] goes all Romeo and Juliet on us, I am SO gonna haunt your ass.”

[6] Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire was another of MVFF’s “Queerish” films.

[7] This kind of artificiality is also characteristic of Dracula’s “epistolary” format.

[8] See In a Glass Darkly, 344–347.

[9] That notion of the price of transgressive liberation is also evoked by Sciamma’s Portrait.

[10] The binding of the left hand in this way is a folk “remedy” that persisted in some English quarters into the twentieth century. The future King George VI was bound this way in order to encourage him to write right-handed.

[11] In Le Fanu’s novella, Carmilla’s name has a very precise and significant meaning as an anagram of Mircalla, Countess of Karnstein; in Harris’s film, it is but a “pet name,” bestowed on her by a possessive Lara.

[12] Perhaps the most famous presentation of these symptoms marks the case of Bram Stoker’s tragic beauty, Lucy Westenra.

[13] Lord Byron’s epic Turkish “romance” The Giaour (1813) indeed contains a passage invoking the image of one “first, on earth as vampire sent.”

[14] This is a reference to the taxonomy propounded by the great French naturalist Georges Louis Leclerc Comte de Buffon in his multi-volume Histoire naturelle (1749 et sqq.).