The Vampire Lovers
by D. MacDowell Blue
(Los Angeles, CA)
Emma and Carmilla
Arguably the most famous adaptation of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's seminal novella "Carmilla" this film rose from Hammer Studios looking for new franchises. Interestingly, it resembles the original far more than did any of Hammer's efforts to tell "Dracula."
In Styria (an Austrian province--with remarkably English-seeming peasants) a series of young woman are targeted by a vampire known sometimes as Millarca or Mircalla or Carmilla. She hales from the famously wicked Karnstein family, wiped out almost to the last a generation earlier by one Baron Hartog in revenge for his sister's death (shown in the prologue). Most of the film centers around her visiting/wooing/feeding upon the ingenue Emma (in the book her name is Laura). Given its status as a Hammer film, the plot abounds with heaving bosoms in various states on undress, splashes of too-thick and wrongly-hued blood, a seemingly lavish production design actually done fairly 'on the cheap' and swelling, almost bombastic music.
All well and good.
But what makes this offering superior--and by far more fondly remembered than either its sequel or prequel--are a series of perhaps small but important details. The relative faithfulness to source material, for one. Even though a bland male love interest for Emma found his way into the flick, at heart the story remains about Carmilla and Laura. More, the lesbian overtones were more explicit (soon after the UK censors began to crack down). Third, the two leads--waifish Madeleine Smith and sensual Ingrid Pitt--brought some real chemistry to their parts as well as their relationship. Smith managed to be more than a pretty piece of background setting, while Pitt embodied a trope common now, but rare then. Her Carmilla felt guilt as well as desire, melancholy as well as bloodlust. She seemed under the thumb of her condition, so much so that when Peter Cushing readied to drive the stake into her heart, she seemed to welcome it.
Lurid? Yes. Exploitive? Well, yeah. Fun? Most definitely! But also--and here's the surprising bit--a little bit dramatic and ambiguous?
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