Tuesday 20 October 2020

Vamps: "Carmilla"

Next off the cab rank for Hallowe'en:
Carmilla, a new, lowish-budget adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu's Gothic novel of 1872, brought to the screen by writer-director Emily Harris. The British film industry's previous adaptations of this book leant heavily into bodice-ripping salaciousness, as indicated by their titles (1970's The Vampire Lovers, 1971's Lust for a Vampire). Harris consciously goes the other route. As Le Fanu's curious teen heroine Lana (Hannah Rae) has her coming-of-age rerouted by the arrival of a mysterious carriage-wreck survivor (Devrim Lingnau), the emphasis is on pillow shots of bugs and flowers, a lingering hothouse atmosphere, and Harris takes the novel's subtext (incipient lesbianism as mortal threat to the status quo) far more seriously than her thigh-rubbing predecessors. Despite a couple of bloody dream sequences, this Carmilla is more art film than overt shocker, which may require some expectation management; less so, if you recall that Carl Dreyer's 1932 film Vampyr, very loosely based on this book, counted among the first Le Fanu adaptations.

It's a quietly seductive watch, all the same. Its MVP was DoP Michael Wood, who - in a rare move for anyone working at this budgetary level - appears to have seized all the time in the world to compose and light these images, emerging with smokily handsome country-house interiors surrounded by verdant, sundappled landscapes that mirror Lara's own blossoming. The narrative, in this take, remains a little languorous, as much a slow burn as the candles deployed as light sources: we're waiting for the revelation of this stranger's identity, and the (over)reaction of the powers-that-be. Yet Harris casts effectively, recruiting old hands Greg Wise and Tobias Menzies (who wear the tricorns and breeches well) and the terrific Jessica Raine (as a prissy governess/high priestess of straight society, making a Phantom Thread-level meal out of breakfast when her straying charge fails to report at the appointed hour) to supplement her engaging leads. The slight tentative quality about Rae's performance fits a heroine starting to put a feeler or two out into the world; the minxier Lingnau gets to channel Yutte Stensgaard, albeit with the 21st century privilege of keeping her nipples under wraps. With the studios retreating en masse from the multiplex, it's unclear what tricks and treats the movies will have left for us this October 31st - it's unlikely we'll see Saw, or any sign of Paranormal Activity - but Harris's film would be a good way to unsettle your support bubble for ninety minutes.

Carmilla is now playing in selected cinemas, and is available to rent via Prime Video.

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