Thursday, January 18, 2007

Carmilla (1990) – review

VHS cover

Director: Gabrielle Beaumont

Release Date: 1990

Contains spoilers

This remake of the classic Sheridan Le Fanu story was an episode of Showtime’s “Nightmare Classics” and could probably be best described as Carmilla meets Gone with the Wind. The film makers took Le Fanu’s story, transplanted it to the Southern States of America just post the Civil War and then added in a liberal dose of standard (but not Carmilla standard) vampire lore and fairytale. The result is a good looking short film (it runs at around 58 minutes) but not necessarily a horror film. As the film diverges from the book I will be exploring the plot line closely, so spoilers aplenty.

The film begins with Marie (Ione Skye) in her room playing with dolls when a carriage approaches their house. The carriage is met by housekeeper Miss Hodgett (Armelia McQueen) and the driver states he has no passenger, she was too ill to come but it does carry a letter for the Master of the House, Leo (Roy Dotrice). The letter apologises for the fact that the General’s daughter is too ill to visit and Leo has the coach sent on its way, though Miss Hodgett gives the driver a set of beads before he goes, to protect him in the South. The General is a key figure in the original story but does not make an actual appearance in this – his character is subsumed by another as we shall see later.

Marie is most upset that her friend has not come and, when walking in the evening with him, asks her father to find her a friend. Suddenly horses bolt past and, further up the road, a carriage has crashed. There is an old woman and driver, both dead, and a young girl unconscious who, of course, is Carmilla (Meg Tilly). In the original there is the crash but no one dies, the older woman simply asks that her daughter is cared for whilst she continues her journey. The way this did it actually makes a little bit more sense to my mind as a way of Carmilla insinuating herself into the household.

The doctor and LeoThe local doctor (John Doolittle) checks on Carmilla and she seems to be fine, though she has suffered a head injury. Marie goes to take her tea as Leo and the doctor talk about the rumours of plague to the South – this is a subject we shall return to. Marie takes the sleeping Carmilla her tea and is picking up some clothing from the floor when she spots a mouse and reacts strongly to it. Carmilla awakens and checks her hand, she has not been bitten. Carmilla asks about her mother, referring to the older woman, and Marie leaves the room embarrassed as she thought Carmilla had been told. When gone Carmilla smiles and goes onto the balcony looking into the night.

We cut to a burial in the family crypt for the driver and mother. It is fairly overcast and, as the girls walk back, we see Carmilla carries an umbrella - though spots of sunlight do appear through the trees’ canopy. This is important as the film, much later, makes play that Carmilla must avoid the sunlight. An invented rule as this never occurred in the original story. As they walk, they talk. It seems that Marie’s mother ran away when she was young and this is why her father seems to dissuade friendship.

That evening they are to have dinner. Meg Tilly as CarmillaLeo has greased his hair, to look his best for company, and it is clear that Carmilla coyly flirts with him, even calling him Leo. Miss Hodgett is less sure, keeping an eye on the girl. A beggar boy runs through the house, whom Miss Hodgett has allowed to sleep on the porch and, suddenly, Carmilla seems ill and retires to her room without having dinner. That night we see her cloaked figure descend on the boy. He is found dead in the morning and the doctor wonders whether it might be the plague.

Carmilla and Marie go on a picnic, though it seems dusk when they get out. During their conversation, having said that she must leave eventually, Carmilla speaks of her dislike of Miss Hodgett calling her a witch and also insinuates that Leo’s motives are less than pure. Unperturbed, just relieved to finally have a friend, Marie cuts a lock of hair from Carmilla, has her do the same and then pricks their thumbs to become blood sisters. To end the ritual, Marie suggests that they must wash their hands in the lake. As she does so we see that only Marie is reflected, though she does not notice. Once they return to the house they sit to dinner but Carmilla starts to heave after just one bite of food.

That night, as Marie sleeps, there is movement below the sheets. She wakes with a start and suddenly Carmilla is there holding her – saying she heard her scream. The camera shows us that there are punctures on Marie’s neck. Miss Hodgett sees Carmilla leave the room and so removes her charm beads and places them on Marie’s door handle. Suddenly Carmilla appears and disappears all around her and a flock of bats descend upon her, causing her to fall down the stairs where the bats drink her blood. The control of animals - bats, the household cat and the mouse - is an addition to the story, although, in the original, Carmilla can turn into a cat.

In the morning the Doctor arrives assuming plague but an Inspector, Amos (Roddy McDowall), has already suggested murder. When the doctor insists on plague Amos asks what plague bites and what natural creatures bite a human but do not touch the face (bar a bite on the tongue)? Marie is found to be ill and Amos notices the punctures on her neck. Carmilla says they must be a spider bite and shows identical marks on her arm.

Roddy McDowall as Inspector AmosHowever, Amos hears of the beggar boy and having checked the body makes a leap to it being a vampire and Carmilla being the creature. The doctor accuses him of living in the dark ages, he has many patients to see as the Southern plague seems to have arrived (though it is clear to us that it is the work of vampires, it was nice to connect vampirism with the plague), but Amos is insistent and suggests keeping the girls apart. Amos, very much, subsumes the General’s role from the original story.

It is strange, therefore, that we then see the girls playing together in the dark. They play chase but when Marie catches Carmilla she vanishes and reappears, mysteriously saying there is much else she would show her. Back in the house Amos, armed with stake (as it is the only way to kill a vampire) is having dog rose placed on the stairs to see Carmilla’s reaction. Carmilla feeds on MarieThis is an interesting lore twist, dog rose is another name from wild rose which, folklore says, when placed on the grave of a vampire prevents its rising. Out in the woods we see Carmilla bite Marie, she moves her head away and Marie replaces it. As the camera pulls back we see that Carmilla bites her whilst floating in the air.

The girls arrive home and go straight upstairs but Carmilla stops, prevented by the dog rose. Leo states he doesn’t want the girls to see each other but Marie admonishes him and noticing that he wears Miss Hodgett’s beads takes some from him and places them on Carmilla, to no ill effect. The household cat, however, has jumped on the stairs and knocked the roses away and Carmilla retreats to her room. Leo insists that he wants Carmilla gone but Amos suggests that they must wait until morning and that Carmilla cried on the stairs, perhaps she remembered her humanity and that will buy them time.

Carmilla stands on the balcony Amos meets his endand sees a woman on the lawns, who bears a resemblance to the portrait of Marie’s mother, the woman then vanishes. Amos hears a noise, investigates and returns to his room. The cat has got in so he throws it out and then the door locks itself and smoke begins to billow around the room. He tries to open a window and we hear a scream. When the doctor and Leo burst in, Amos’ stake has been rammed through his own head. Marie and Carmilla have gone but Leo suspects that they’ve gone to the graveyard.

The men reach there as the girls enter the crypt and morning breaks. The men try to pursue but bats drive them off. Marie insists to Carmilla that she must say goodbye to her father and leaves the crypt to say she will leave with Carmilla. He tries to prevent her but, showing inhuman strength, she overpowers him and, as the sun strengthens, runs back into the crypt. The men enter. Carmilla is nowhere to be seen (though we see the mouse). They open coffins and stake the occupants. We see the old lady, she is not actually dead until staked and it is insinuated that Carmilla leads a whole pack of vampires. Marie's Mother stakedMarie goes to her father as he opens a coffin, it contains her mother. Her mother begs to be killed and father and daughter drive the stake in together. Marie just wants to go home and has realised that it was Carmilla who took her mother away (a concept only in the film, never in the book, though the book does suggest a childhood memory between Laura – Marie’s counterpoint – and Carmilla).

Once home Marie goes to bed as she is tired. The mouse appears and suddenly Carmilla is stood there. She goes to Marie who rejects her and so tries to bite the girl forcibly. Carmilla stakedMarie pushes her away, straight onto a convenient spike on the wall and Carmilla opens her arms imploringly. Leo and the doctor come in, the doctor opens the curtains and Carmilla vanishes in the sunlight. As a coda Marie asks her father to close the curtains and, after banter about a broken doll and the fact that she has never been so happy, he leaves the room. Marie smiles and the implication (along with her reactions outside the crypt) is that she is now a vampire.

The film looks sumptuous but it really fails to raise any form of tension. Rather than build it into the film itself, it relies on musical clues in the soundtrack to inform us which bits are scary. This is a shame and, perhaps, has a little to do with the length of the piece as much as the direction. The pace seems hurried and there are points where people realise things all too quickly. How did Leo know they were going to the crypt, it hadn’t featured except for a burial. It would have only taken a moment to say that he could see them running in that direction and the result is a little sloppy. The sunlight aspects were very wishy washy also, as though the film makers couldn’t quite make up their mind about using the rule.

The acting is okay, although Marie comes across as a bit of a spoilt brat. Tilly is great as Carmilla though, giving little knowing smiles and managing to produce an air of mystery. It was great to see McDowall with a stake in hand and he was, as ever, his charming self. I thought the additional material with regards the mother was superfluous, though I can see that the scriptwriters added it to give Marie a motivation for turning against Carmilla.

Carmilla the story has, very much, an erotic undertone and this keeps it to a degree though it is even more underplayed than the original story. The strongest suggestions actually come from the coy flirtation with Leo that Carmilla indulges in rather than with Marie as one would expect.

Ultimately, however, the film – whilst interesting and carrying an air of the fairytale – is unfulfilling as a horror piece, which is a shame. Definitely worth a watch if you are a genre fan or fan of the story but you will come away wishing it had been more than it was. All in all, you are better off watching Hammer’s The Vampire Lovers. 5 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.


Unknown said...

I liked this film the most of all Carmilla adaptations I've seen. Especially the horribly Hammer movie. But I do dislike some things like them conforming to more recent post Dracula Vampire rules.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

fair call Unknown - each to their own (I like Hammer's Vampire Lovers)and, as I often say, if we all liked exactly the same things/versions the world would be boring.

There is a Polish adaptation that looks marvelous - I have seen it but never reviewed it as I have it in Polish only, and was very lucky to get to view that - I think ithat is a version (properly subbed and restored) that all Carmilla fans would really enjoy.

Unknown said...

what year was this Polish film made? I've never heard of it.

I'm looking forward to Styria. I forgot, have you done either the book or movie of The Moth Diaries?

Taliesin_ttlg said...

The Polish Carmilla was recorded in the 80s. If you are interested you can see it at my friend Zahir's site here.

I too am looking forward to Styria (I am a kickstart donator so the DVD should send its way to me when it is ready).

You can find my review of the moth diaries on site, links are: book, film.

Also, just to note, I hope that you agree that I am quick to moderate comments normally but I am going away for a couple of days so if any comments left aren't released or answered too quickly don't worry ;)

Unknown said...

Thanks. I'll be sure to remember that.