Film Review – Carmilla (2019)

It’s one of the greatest of all horror genres. Vampires. And it all started back in 1987 with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, right? Not quite. Thirty years before came a novella called Carmilla, written by Joseph Sheridan la Fanu and, while Stoker captured the public imagination when it came to blood sucking and bats, la Fanu’s story has enjoyed an afterlife all of its own, one that concentrates on its depiction of teenage sexuality.

Now the story emerges from Drac’s cinematic shadow, thanks to Emily Harris’s debut as a solo director but, instead of giving us a simple adaptation, she’s used the original as the basis for something that mixes a coming of age story with a dash of traditional horror and hint of the psychological style that’s characterised recent years. The essential narrative remains the same. Teenager Lara (Hannah Rae) lives in a country house with her father (Greg Wise) and strict governess, Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine) but yearns for company of her own age. When a coach crashes nearby and an older girl is brought to the family home to recover, it seems like she’s got her wish. But the newcomer is a figure of mystery – she seems to have no name, so Lara calls her Carmilla – yet, as she recovers, the two become closer. The questions surrounding her refuse to go away and Miss Fontaine becomes increasingly fearful that her influence over Lara could be an evil one …..

Harris plays down the vampiric aspect of the story – although it never totally goes away – concentrating instead on the sense of the devil being afoot and it’s there from the opening sequence, when we meet Lara throwing stones into a pond. That, in itself, isn’t remarkable, but the camera pans out to show that her left arm is strapped behind her back, so she can only use her right one. This is a world where superstition and simple, even primitive, religious beliefs thrive and dominate and where crucifixes hang on just about every wall in the house. A barking dog can be taken as a sign of the devil within – animals, after all, can sense these things, as Miss Fontaine points out.

Her role has been ramped up for the film as well, so that this is just as much her story as Lara’s. As the teenager blossoms, the governess becomes increasingly frustrated, her repressed desires barely concealed beneath the surface and, in Jessica Raine’s performance, you sense a scream of anguish is never more than a breath away. In one precisely crafted scene, she waits for her pupil to arrive for breakfast, pouring out tea and buttering toast. There seems to be nothing untoward on the outside, but her almost crippling anxieties are written all over her face, and the increasing volume of her scraping knife makes them even sharper.

The gloomy candlelit shadows of the house are sharply contrasted with brilliant daylight and the natural world outside becomes increasingly sinister and threatening. The close ups of insects and other creatures are beautifully intimate and, coupled with some superbly atmospheric sound, they give the film big screen appeal as well as placing a question mark over something everyday and innocent. A coming of age story, certainly, and one with a horrific side but, more importantly, this version of Carmilla is all about how attitudes and opinions can override facts with devastating consequences. It may not wholly satisfy the seasonal taste for scares and shocks, but its questioning approach, coupled with a doom-laden atmosphere, more than make up for that.

★★★


Horror, Thriller | Cert: 15 | Republic Film | 16 October | Dir. Emily Harris | Hannah Rae, Jessica Raine, Devrim Lingau, Greg Wise, Tobias Menzies.