Given how popular vampires are in films and TV these days, it might come as a surprise to know that the mythology did not begin with Bram Stoker’s classic 1897 novel Dracula. More than two decades earlier, Irish writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu penned Carmilla, one of the earliest noted works of vampire fiction. The story follows a young girl named Laura, preyed upon by the titular character – revealed to be the lesbian vampire Mircalla, Countess Karnstein.
Numerous filmmakers have already broached Le Fanu’s 1871 novella, including Carl Theodore Dryer (1932’s Vampyr), Roger Vadim (1960’s Blood and Roses) and even Roy Ward Baker (for Hammer Horror’s 1970 effort The Vampire Lovers, starring Ingrid Pitt). Now comes the turn of British writer-director Emily Harris. “They’re all very different,” she says of the previous adaptations. “Ours is yet again another version. Which is slightly terrifying if you think something has been done many, many times. But also, exciting.”
Shifting the story from Austria to England, Harris’ film, Carmilla, takes the bold step of removing the vampiric overtones of the story to create a fascinating chamber piece about intimacy, innocence, and isolation. Set in the late 18th Century, Hannah Rae plays 15-year-old Lara, who is overseen by a firm governess (Jessica Raine) with her father largely absent. When the mysterious Carmilla (Devrim Lingnau) arrives, following a nearby carriage accident, Lara becomes besotted by this unexpected visitor – in hugely damaging ways.
“That superficial air of vampires and lesbianism for me wasn’t the story,” says Harris, explaining why she ditched the overt sexual element. “I was more interested in understanding the root of that literature. Why were people writing about that? What does it symbolise and signify? And what’s the human story underneath it? So, peeling those layers off and getting into the psychology of that and making them real people [was what I wanted to do].”
The up-and-coming Rae, who has featured in hit TV drama Broadchurch and the Dwayne Johnston wrestling tale Fighting with my Family, was struck by how different Harris’ script felt compared to the original Le Fanu text. “The character is a lot younger in the script,” she notes, “and it’s more innocent, more of a coming-of-age story, rather than the lesbian vampire roots. Even though it’s set in the 1790s, it’s so relevant to today and relationships young women have.”
While the story is set at a time when religion and fear dominated, Rae did not see Carmilla as the personification of evil as those around her come to believe. “I saw her as another 15-year-old girl, who probably has a lot more worldly experience than Lara. I think she’s a lot more clued up on the world. I honestly think it was the paranoia of the era and society not liking someone who is different; they want to get rid of someone that they don’t understand. I think they fell in love and it is essentially a love story. But I love the fact that it’s so open to interpretation.”
Shot in just 22 days, in an Elizabethan manor house in rural Sussex in southern England, despite its low-budget nature, the film attracted major talent behind it. Phil Selway – known to many music fans as the drummer for iconic band Radiohead – signed on to do the score. “Partly thinking he was a percussionist, I thought the percussive elements in the script were all there,” says Harris. “The crackle of fire, rain, sounds of nature…it felt like percussion was right.”
Harris also managed to convince costume designer John Bright to come out of retirement. The six-time Oscar nominee – who won an Academy Award for A Room with a View – had not worked since 2005’s The White Countess. “He read quite an early draft and was hugely important in establishing when – not necessarily where – we were setting this film. He listened to what I was trying to do visually and then he was able to pinpoint exactly which time-period would suit that look.”
Despite Selway and Bright’s involvement, Carmilla was also “a predominantly women-led project”, as Rae puts it. “It was really important that we didn’t say, ‘Oh we’ll have an all-female crew’,” adds Harris. “That’s very gimmicky. You want the best people who connect with the story. But I was very aware we had two young girls doing sensitive material.” Produced by Lizzie Brown and Emily Precious, Carmilla set out safe boundaries that many productions should strive for.
Following a solid rehearsal process, Rae found that shooting entirely on location was supremely useful. “I found just being in the manor and being around the grounds and exploring them, in the way my character Lara would, really helped me a lot.” She even spent time writing with her left hand to figure out Lara’s handwriting, as a way of exploring her personality. “I just got into the character really slowly and it didn’t really feel like an effort.”
Although many of the crew stayed in the manor, the actress shared lodgings with her co-star, the Germany-born Lingnau, which turned out to be a godsend. “We were getting to know each other, as Carmilla and Lara were getting to know each other. We came away [from set] and spoke as Devrim and Hannah and then came back to the house [where we shot] and were Lara and Carmilla. Obviously, Devrim was wearing a wig so I was able to differentiate Devrim and Carmilla!”
Harris was simply delighted to find two actresses that fitted the characters so tightly. “I kept saying, ‘If we don’t find Carmilla and Lara, we don’t make this. There’s no way.’” After discovering Rae, they searched long and hard for an actress to play Carmilla until eventually encountering Lingnau. “Once she appeared, it definitely felt like we might actually make this.” Even then, Harris needed to see the two of them in a room together before she cast them. Once she did, “They were it. It was obvious.”
Certainly, their intense, blazing chemistry comes across in this intoxicating gothic tragedy. With cinematographer Michael Wood beautifully capturing the natural world close by, it adds to the film’s unsettling atmosphere. “There is something inherently beautiful and scary and destructive and creative about nature,” says Harris, “and I think the story was everything to do with that. Some people see the beauty in it, some people see the innocence and some people see the destructive side of what’s going on.” It feels like a fine way to sum up Carmilla.
Carmilla is in cinemas May 13, 2021