I have to admit Carmilla passed me by. There have been three seasons of the web series about a 330-year-old lesbian vampire woman who falls for a mortal and ends up fighting evil, but it wasn’t a show I’d ever heard of. However, the screening of The Carmilla Movie at BFI Flare showed me quite how remiss I’ve been, as the National Film Theatre was packed with ‘Cream Puffs’ (which is what fans of the show call themselves) who were rabidly excited for the movie, and went into true fangirling mode when Carmilla herself – aka actress Natasha Negovanlis – stepped onto the stage.
By the end of the film I was beginning to understand how Carmilla has managed to transcend its web series roots, build a loyal fanbase around the world and get turned into a movie.
The film picks up five years after end of the third season of the web show, which closed with Carmilla becoming a mortal human again. However, it seems there’s a problem with the magical ‘spark’ that’s keeping Carmilla alive, and her vlogger/journalist girlfriend Laura (Elise Bauman) has started having strange dreams about a gothic mansion where Carmilla was once responsible for the deaths of numerous women.
Laura, Carmilla and their friends leave their cosy Toronto lives and head to the mansion in Austria. There they discover the ghosts of the women Carmilla sacrificed, who it turns out have a connection to what’s been going on with the former vamps’ spark. The only way to sort things out is to perform a ritual that will let the long-dead spirits move on, but at least one of the ghosts has other ideas.
While that synopsis makes it sound like it’s all about Carmilla, it’s actually Laura who’s the central character and we generally see the events through her eyes. She brings a sardonic, knowing wit to the proceedings that helps keep the audience on side even when the plot edges towards getting a bit too silly for its own good. The film (and web series) undoubtedly take inspiration from the likes of Buffy and Doctor Who, which allows it to create a fun fantasy world that runs parallel to our own.
Perhaps the best thing about that is that it doesn’t just extend to saying that in this universe vampires and ghosts exists, but that things can be moulded in other ways to make it the world we’d like to live in rather than the world we do. That means that it can reverse the norms and have a single male character – who’s knowingly there to be pretty and dumb – while the women sort everything out and control the adventure. Likewise, sisters can be different races and no one bats an eyelid, and people can express a range of queer identities that nobody questions or need to have an angsty character arc exploring it.
It is true genre fiction presenting a queer-controlled female world that we rarely see on screen. Sure there are a few flaws – largely a result of trying to do fantasy on a budget – but overall it’s a lot of fun. Elise Bauman is great as Laura, but the rest of the cast is good too, managing the balance of believing in what they’re doing but not taking it too seriously. Some newbies will find it takes a while to get into, partly because in trying to make sure everyone who hasn’t seen the web series gets caught up, it’s information overload (and slightly bizarre information at that). However, as soon as the plot proper starts it becomes a lot of fun.
Surprisingly, despite being such a queer/lesbian narrative, it was directed by a straight man. While some may grumble at that, it does show that by listening to the queer voices around him and letting them control the story and particularly how female sexuality is shown, having a straight guy at the helm doesn’t have to be a problem.
Overall Verdict: A funny, Buffy-esque lesbian vampire romp set in a queer world I think a lot of us would like to live in. You can see why Carmilla has become such a fan favourite.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac