Saturday, October 20, 2012


Sheridan Le Fanu's 1872 novella Carmilla is a classic of vampire fiction, and perhaps the most influential work of literature, second only to Bram Stoker's Dracula, on the vampire movie genre. This is a fairly direct adaptation of the story. The film's prologue has Baron Hartog defeating the beautiful Karnstein vampire by stealing her shroud, which she needs to return to her grave, and beheading her. Years later, at a ball given by General Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing), a visiting countess (Dawn Addams) and her daughter Marcilla (Ingrid Pitt) show up, with Marcilla turning all the young men's heads. When the countess is called away suddenly to attend to a sickly relative, the general agrees to let Marcilla stay in his home for a time. Marcilla and Laura, the general's daughter, get along quite well, but soon Laura is ill, suffering at night from visions of a large cat attacking her and by day from anemia. Within days, Laura is dead with bloody bites marks on her breast, and Marcilla has vanished. A while later, Marcilla shows up again along with the countess in a nearby village using the name Carmilla and uses a similar strategy to insinuate herself into the household of Roger Morton (George Cole); she begins a "sexy best friend" relationship with his daughter Emma. The same stuff starts happening, though this time, it seems like Carmilla may actually have feelings for Emma, and she turns to some village wenches to get her fill of blood even as Emma becomes ill and bedridden just like Laura. The governess and butler start to see through Carmilla's actions, but using her erotic wiles, she gets them both on her side. After talking to the general, Morton realizes what’s going on, and he and Morton and an older Baron Hartog, accompanied by the handsome Carl (Jon Finch), discover the grave of a Mircalla Karnstein, figure out the anagrammed names, and attempt to stop the vampire once and for all.

This film probably started the lesbian vampire genre with its generous amounts of female nudity and one scene that approaches soft-core girl-on-girl action. But the sexual material doesn’t feel superfluous or overdone, and the movie is a very respectable vampire film even without the bare bosoms. Pitt, though sexy, seems a bit old to be cozying up to the young girls—she was in her mid-30s and looked it, while the actresses playing Laura and Emma were both in their early 20s. But Pitt gives a layered performance, especially in the last half when she clearly feels torn between her hunger for blood and her love for Emma. Cushing is good as always, and Finch makes for a solid hero. However, the best performance was from Kate O'Mara as Emma's governess who creates an interesting character in just a handful of scenes--that's Pitt over O'Mara at right. There are two beheadings, both of which are effective and quite graphic for the day. This film did well for Hammer and a sequel came out the next year which I'll cover tomorrow. The poster above is great, but absolutely nothing like that ensues in the film. [DVD]

1 comment:

Steve said...

I seem to remember seeing this one, but can't say for sure. I've got a copy somewhere.
I've got to read Carmilla at some point - a copy came with my Criterion edition of Vampyr. Have you ever seen The Blood-Spattered Bride? That's another adaptation of the text that's worth a look. It's a Tarantino/grindhouse favorite.