Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s vampire story Carmilla doesn’t excerise the same fascination for pop culture as Bram Stoker’s Dracula. However, Le Fanu’s work has also been adapted for the screen many times, and often at key points in the history of horror cinema. Arguably, Carmilla‘s influence on horror cinema is just as far reaching.
Inspired by Le Fanu’s stories Carmilla and The Room at Le Dragon Volant, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) is a disturbing and dream-like journey into an uncanny world. One of the earliest films to experiment with sound, Mark Kermode describes it as ‘a milestone of horror cinema’.
The film is mesmersising, full of shadows and symbols. In one daring sequence taken from The Room at Le Dragon Volant, our hero, Allan Gray, is almost buried alive – we see what he sees from inside the open coffin and the camera tracks first across the ceiling of the chapel, through the doors and out into daylight.
In another unsettling sequence Gray pursues a shadow through a deserted castle where he encounters ghostly soldiers, dancers and finally, the Vampyr herself. The movement of the camera and the use of nostalgic music recalls later films, in particular Stanley Kubric’s The Shining. However, in Dreyer’s version, the monster is a much older woman and we see very little of her. This is not a film that is very interested in the lesbian implications of it’s source material. Instead it captures the eerieness of Le Fanu’s writing and his ability to allow the supernatural effects to slowly build up, intruding into, and finally overpowering our rational world.
BLOOD AND ROSES
In 1960, Roger Vadim, best known today for the pyschedelic sci-fi epic Barbarella, adapted Carmilla for the screen as Blood and Roses. A glossy riot of blood and ballgowns, Vadim restored the original tale’s lesbian themes. With the casting of the director’s wife Annette Vadim as Carmilla, the notorious vampire takes her rightful place centre-stage.
The majestically lurid technicolour photography by Claude Renoir is a clear forerunner of Italian giallo and the British Hammer Films and according to Joe Dante (Gremlins), Vadim ‘practically invents the Euro-horror film as we know it’.
Like Dreyer before him, Vadim focused on the story’s hypnotic atmosphere, creating a series of sumptuous dream sequences, but this time exploring the sensual implications of the Le Fanu’s work. Unfairly neglected, Blood and Roses isn’t strong on story or characterisation, but convinces us of the vampire’s irresistible magnetism.
THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970)
The film that made a cult figure of Ingrid Pitt, The Vampire Lovers’ took advantage of the relaxation of the attitudes to sex and violence during the nineteen-seventies. Featuring a surprising amount of nudity and gore, it spawned the increasingly camp and gruesome sequels Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil. Yet with a cast that included Peter Cushing, Kate O’Mara and George Cole, it’s not without a strange power that occasionally transcends its undeniable trashiness.
As with many vampire films, it’s hard not to start rooting for Carmilla as she slaughters her way through the various innocents that stray into her path. Persecuted, misunderstood, driven into the shadows by one-dimensional, crucifix-weilding cis-het heroes, who often don’t look like they know whether they want to kill her or sleep with her, can we read a subversive, even feminist subtext to these exploitative movies? It’s telling that one of the most effective pieces of horror in The Vampire Lovers is the ending, which mirrors Le Fanu’s novella almost exactly.
*YES THERE ARE SPOILERS BELOW*
When Peter Cushing and his team of vampire hunters finally corner Carmilla alone in her lair, she is defenseless, sleeping, unable to resist as the stake is driven into her heart and she is beheaded. But wait – aren’t the good guys meant to triumph over insuperable odds? Not just murder a sleeping woman? There’s nothing brave or heroic about this brutal act, nor is there any real suspense or drama here. It would be hard to imagine a horror screenplay today that did not give its monster at least a fighting chance in the final reel. Whose side are we meant to be on here? Who are the real monsters?
Bram Stoker’s Dracula borrowed many elements from Carmilla, and became one of the most instantly recognisable characters in fiction. But Carmilla and its film adaptations enter more persuasively, and with a playful, dark humour that Le Fanu would have relished, into the emotional universe of the vampire, into her drives and the hallucinatory drives of her victims.
We are meeting to discuss Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu on 3 February. The event is free, but we recommend that you book your place via Eventbrite.