Inspired by a pre-Dracula vampire novella, Emily Harris’ Gothic thriller plays fast and loose with its plot points, characters, and otherworldly elements while adhering to its broad strokes: a sheltered young woman – continually scolded for her left handedness and lack of prayerfulness – begins to grow aware of her desires after an unknown girl comes for an unexpected stay.
Everything in the set-up is promising, but Carmilla refuses to fully commit to the source material’s weird, witchy Gothic tale that fully clarifies the strange visitor’s paranormal abilities. Leaving the justification of Miss Fontaine’s fears ambiguous could have made a disquieting, compelling tale in other hands; here, not knowing Carmilla’s complete innocence or devilry is a frustrating, uninspiring choice. Considering Lara’s penchant for carnal exploration – found by perusing her father’s anatomy books, in dreams of disembowelments, and by constantly pushing her own pain threshold – leaning further into the supernatural, grotesque, and/or sexual could have raised stakes and emotional involvement. As it is, many decisions feel distant.
Aesthetically, Carmilla is gorgeous, Blood reds on pale backgrounds are used to great effect, and the candlelit cinematography controls exactly what one can see – and what one thinks might be lurking in the shadows – at any time. The uniformly strong performances lean into this dread. Hannah Rae employs a blank face through much of Lara’s macabre imaginings, heightening the sense of unease. Jessica Raine is another standout, keeping Miss Fontaine’s cruel superstitions grounded in a genuine love for her charge – though neither Raine nor Harris excuse her actions.
There is much to like in Carmilla – notably its performances and atmosphere – but it is let down by a hesitancy to throw itself into the grossest, maddest side of its protagonist’s awakening. In the end, the mystery underwhelms and refuses to satisfy, undermining the intentional ambiguity of this interpretation.
CAST: Hannah Rae, Devrim Lingnau, Jessica Raine, Tobias Menzies, Greg Wise, Lorna Gayle
DIRECTOR: Emily Harris
WRITERS: Jordan Hall, Ellen Simpson
SYNOPSIS: In this Gothic mystery, a sheltered teenager’s life is changed when a mysterious carriage accident brings a visitor to the home.