Countess of Blood: The Cinematic Impact of Carmilla

wpengine | September 27, 2017

When it comes to the world of fanged fiends, there’s no question that Dracula has cornered the market on notoriety with the general public. However, as with most things, when the fame and visibility are peeled away, it turns out that the Count owes most of his acclaim to girl power.

Published 26 years before Stoker’s landmark novel, Gothic author Sheridan Le Fanu released his novella Carmilla, a scintillating and shocking horror tale detailing the Sapphic exploits of the undead Countess Carmilla Karnstein. Although lesser known to modern readers than Dracula, Le Fanu’s text proved to be extremely influential to Stoker’s own writing, and direct parallels between the works are undeniable. However, more than just a direct relative of the Count, Carmilla would also set the mould for a whole generation of lesbian and sensual vampire tales that would follow.

Carmilla (neé Mircalla) and her slow seduction of weak and innocent maidens not only would lay the foundation of a much-visited trope in vampiric lore, but would also serve as one of the first popular culture intersections of the queer experience and the horror genre. Furthermore, beyond merely influencing a new era of literature, the novella’s embracing of vivid sensuality and scares made it ripe for inevitable film interpretation. The tale’s blurring of lines and broadening of horizons would directly inspire the dreamlike cinema of French filmmaker Jean Rollin (Lips of Blood, Requiem for a Vampire, etc) and the erotic fever dreams of Spanish schlockmeister Jess Franco (Vampyros Lesbos).

Of course, Carmilla served as more than mere inspiration, cinematically speaking. The Countess Karnstein has seen almost as many film adaptations of her story as Dracula himself. One of the earliest, Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr, was released in 1932…albeit with the story’s lesbian inferences strategically edited out to fit with the mode of the time.

However, Carmilla wasn’t kept in the closet for long.

In 1960, acclaimed auteur Roger Vadim (Barbarella, And God Created Woman) released Blood and Roses, an adaptation that fully embraced the story’s erotic roots and would go on to be considered one of the vampire subgenre’s most celebrated entries. Hammer would also faithfully adapt the novella in 1970 with The Vampire Lovers (starring ingénue Ingrid Pitt in an iconic turn), and subsequently follow with two more entries, Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil, which expanded the lore of the Karnstein clan.

…and like all good creatures of the night, Carmilla refused to stay dead. Most recently, films like The Moth Diaries and The Unwanted have utilized the story in updated, modern settings. More so, a popular web series from Canada, aptly titled Carmilla, has garnered a voracious fan base for its strong and positive portrayals of LGBTQ and non-binary characters. The series, starring Natasha Negovanlis and Elise Bauman (Almost Adults), has been compared to the likes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and will see a feature film spin-off later this year. And if that’s not enough Carmilla in your daily diet, the Countess is set to return to her Hammer roots this fall as a centerpiece of The Hammer House of Horror Live experience at Hoxton Hall.

So, why all the Carmilla love? Is it because we can trace so much of Gothic horror’s foundations to her initial adventure? Of course. But it’s also much more. Although subtle in the original text, Le Fanu’s blurring of gender lines was a bold step in genre presentation. The novella serves as an early example of fright fiction going beyond mere pulp to challenge social mores. Carmilla and all its various adaptations, at their best, prove that when horror is done right…it can use monsters to say things about our society and culture we may not be able to say outright. More than just an early exploration of homoerotic themes in an era where such things were forbidden, Carmilla is also a larger expose on desire and how repression of our emotion can make monsters of us all.

At its very roots, Carmilla is the definitive vampire tale that hits all the marks: It’s savage, sexy, scary, and shockingly human. The story engages us on levels that are both relatable and revealing, and has inspired a swath of artists from Anne Rice to Bram Stoker himself.

More so, because Carmilla’s story is so vivid, it makes perfect sense that it would serve as delicious fodder for the silver screen. With a new film coming and a live appearance set this fall, the Countess Karnstein shows no signs of slowing down. Nearly 146 years after the publication of Le Fanu’s novella, Carmilla has carved a diverse swath of devilish and delicious content that continues to delight fans across the globe.

So, if you remain one of the uninitiated, use this Halloween season to sink your teeth into something new. Give the Count a year off and revel in something many have known all along:

Sisters are doing it for themselves.

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