Director/writer Emily Harris whips up an intoxicating affair between two women in Carmilla, as she takes her turn at adapting the 1872 Gothic novella by Sheridan Le Fanu. It’s a text that has inspired many directors over the course of cinematic history, from the likes of Carl Dreyer in 1932 with Vampyr, Vicente Aranda with Seventies cult classic The Blood Splattered Bride, and even British director Phil Claydon with the complete piece of trash, Lesbian Vampire Killers in 2009.
In 2020 Harris takes a discerning stab at the book, with a sensual tale of first love and sexual awakenings packed full of beguiling and provocative imagery.
Harris relocates the story to 1780s rural England, where a 15-year-old girl named Lara (Hannah Rae) lives in an isolated dwelling with her strict governess Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine). When a mysterious stranger lands on their doorstep, after an unfortunate crash, her presence titillates and frightens those around her.
The titular role of Carmilla is played by German-Turkish newcomer Devrim Lingnau, who – with her red hair and piercing eyes – resembles a woodland fox. Lingnau’s dynamic and on-screen chemistry with Rae is sizzling hot which, alongside Harris’ eye for visceral visuals, makes this an extremely scintillating viewing experience.
The score by Phil Selway, the drummer from Radiohead, works well with Harris’ focus on the fertile wilderness surrounding the women, but it’s occasionally distracting as it overpowers what is happening on screen.
The vampiric element of the book is pared back somewhat, with symbolic displays of violence appearing in potently realised dream sequences, where women thirst heavily for blood and flesh. It’s all delivered with a dash of humour and an obvious affection for the ways young women bond and yearn for things that they don’t yet understand.
Harris displays real promise with her first solo feature film; sinking her teeth deep into the original novella’s themes of fear and persecution, and elegantly translating them for a modern audience.
Carmilla is in cinemas on 16 October and on-demand from 19 October. Read our interview with Emily Harris and actress Hannah Rae here.