Sunday, February 28, 2016

Ten Years of TMtV: Guest Blog: Carmilla and Us

It’s my great pleasure to welcome David MacDowell Blue to TMtV as part of the 10 year celebrations. David is a friend who I met through Leila’s Vampire Forum prior to starting TMtV and I remember it was he who recommended the splendid film Psychopathia Sexualis to me. David’s passion is Carmilla and as part of the celebrations he has agreed to share some of his thoughts with us.

Carmilla and Us

An essay by David MacDowell Blue

Although not as famous as Dracula, nor the works of Anne Rice (or Stephanie Myer for that matter) Carmilla remains a vampire icon. The novella, Joseph Sheridan LeFanu’s last work, came out in 1872. Over the decades that followed, it ended up republished again and again. It inspired more than a few other pieces of fiction, most noticeably Carl Dryer’s film Vampyr and John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel Let The Right One In. Starting in the 1950s direct adaptations of the piece began to appear on stage and screen (large and small). Arguably the most famous of these would be Hammer’s The Vampire Lovers, which proved actually rather accurate. Within the last five years (as of this writing) a wave of new versions were mounted. At least three new stage versions, a hugely successful web series (season three scheduled to drop this summer), plus two independent motion pictures and two audio dramas. A musical and a new web comic are in development.

Well and good, one might say. Especially for the fan of good vampire stories! Aficionados of the novella might well feel like applauding! I certainly do!

But as new versions of the world’s most famous lesbian vampire arise, their differences offer an interesting reflection not on the vampire but rather upon us. Like Sherlock Holmes and Batman, how we interpret an icon cannot but prove revealing.

Look at the earliest versions of LeFanu’s tale. When you watch Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses or the lushly photographed Crypt of the Vampire, several interesting differences stand out from the source material. A big one – which remained until the 1980s – was giving Laura (or the equivalent, since screenwriters kept changing her name) a male love interest. In fact the novella includes not a single appropriate bachelor anywhere nearby, not even mentioned somewhere amid the background! The French film even makes Carmilla uninterested in the heroine at all, but determined to steal her man! More subtly, whereas the novella has Laura and her father as upper middle class at best, both these initial films give her family a title and wealth!

Move forward a decade or more, and the latter at least gives way. In the so-called Karnstein Trilogy, the stories take place near the aristocracy but not really about them. The first and most faithful film, with Ingrid Pitt and Madeleine Smith, brings out a quality many have seen in the story, but usually gets lost – namely, that Carmilla remains a fundamentally sad character. She is a reluctant vampire, an earlier (and female) version of Louis and Barnabas, of Angel and Edward. Despite this making for more compelling story-telling, the vast majority of Carmilla adaptations go nowhere near this idea.

Polish television’s otherwise splendid version portrays her as a catlike huntress, one with a cruel affection for her chosen victim. The Spanish Blood Spattered Bride gave us a Carmilla who despised men and seemed to be recruiting women into her man-killing cult. Likewise Vadim’s version was in many ways the ultimate self-centered femme fatale, while Christopher Lee in Crypt ultimately destroys a vengeful psychopath. Some radio plays at least hinted at Carmilla’s loneliness, but again we ultimately got a character supremely selfish. In Nightfall’s version for example, she evidently never dreamed of considering Laura’s wishes.

Not until Showtime’s Nightmare Classics version did we get more psychological complexity, with Meg Tilly’s vampiress expressing not only loneliness and regret, but to some extent a lack of free will. She literally seemed to lack any choice in her pursuit of Ione Skye’s character. Not coincidentally, no male love interest was anywhere to be seen, only the second filmed version of Carmilla for which this was true. Two stage versions also popped up within a decade of this production. One, by LaMomma in New York City, gave us a surreal chamber opera with Laura and Carmilla very nearly the only characters on stage. The other, by UK playwright David Compton, again gave us the pure predator Carmilla, while reducing Laura from central character to minor supporting character, giving a young male protagonist the spotlight as he, Captain Kronos-like, used his skills to defeat the devil in our midst.

One can see an effort to simplify the story in most of these, to make LeFanu’s classic into more of a formula, a comfortable rather than disturbing tale of right and wrong. In particular most adaptations feature a weakening of the female characters. Laura becomes passive, usually saved by her man. Carmilla loses all nuance, becoming the equivalent of a serial killer/rapist.

This remains a far cry from the original story! Laura is our narrator, and frankly less than honest to whomever-it-is listening to her story. The novella does not demonize Carmilla herself, but hints at a far more complex personality and motives. Of course this doesn’t pop up so immediately at first. Multiple readings (which was the norm in an age without radio, t.v., films, or even recorded music) peel back layers of ambiguity – such as the idea that slain vampires go to somewhere truly horrible, enduring a worse existence than sleeping in a grave and hunting one’s friends for food. Laura’s own feelings for Carmilla likewise remain anything but simple (tellingly, she stops talking about her emotions once Carmilla’s nature is unmasked).

Now, in current versions, we tend to see more faithful adaptations, at least in terms of that complexity. Curse of Styria (aka Angels of Darkness) for example delves into deep mythological concerns including the suppression of the feminine. More, it recreates what I myself tried to do in my own stage play version – the repressive, authoritarian society in which the original was set. The Austrian Empire of the 19th century was infamous for its lack of civil liberties. This film moved the tale forward to the Cold War, having it take place behind the Iron Curtain. My play did something similar in placing events immediately following the annexing of Austria into the Third Reich. The Unwanted took this idea even further, making the patriarchal status quo the real villain, fueled by violent misogyny and religious fundamentalism, as personified by Laura’s dad, a farmer in America’s southeast.

The web series’ take on all this reflects another approach to the ambiguity so inherent in LeFanu, but rejected so often by various adaptations (including the recent audio drama with Doctor Who’s David Tennant and Game of Thrones’ Rose Leslie). Here our title character is one of many openly gay college students, a sarcastic philosophy major who finds herself falling for an earnest-enough-to-annoy journalism major, Laura. Likewise Laura, initially judgemental and self righteous, discovers herself having feelings for this “creature from the depths of hell” with such feelings growing the more she learns of Carmilla’s past. The arc of the series in many ways follows the vampire’s resurgent compassion and the heroine’s hard-won learning that her black-and-white vision of the world simply isn’t true.

Which parallels our own relationship with Carmilla, actually.

David MacDowell Blue is a playwright and theatre critic, who also wrote/edited The Annotated Carmilla as well as his own stage play version of Carmilla. Both are available at [/shameless plug both the script and annotated novel are linked below – ed] He has been a regular contributor to the online magazine for years, and is currently looking to get his latest play – a Southern Gothic ghost story titled Noah’s Cove – produced somewhere. His website is here.


Khaia said...

I loved this essay. Although I read the story decades ago and was even inspired to write a prequel, this still provided insights into the book and the character of Carmilla. Thank you, David, for this brief but loving tribute to an unforgettable and haunting story.

Zahir Blue said...

Thanks so much for your kind words!