Emily Harris’s debut film is a lesbian vampire horror movie trying very hard to pretend it’s not a lesbian vampire horror movie. And fair enough: the genre’s got plenty of hokey stereotypes, all heaving bodices in crackling nylon, predatory seductresses, and blood-soaked male-gazey clinches. But Harris’s tastefully muted approach still lacks bite.
Based on an 1872 gothic novel, Carmilla is set in a remote Scottish mansion where lonely teenager Lara wants a friend. In classic be-careful-what-you-wish-for style, that longing is fulfilled when her father takes in mysterious stranger Carmilla, who telegraphs ‘vampire!’ with every hungry look and unplaceably accented pronouncement. Even the family dog barks at her. Still, Devrim Lingnau’s performance is so luminous that you can totally see why Hannah Rae’s Lara is drawn to her like a doomed moth.
Clunky insert shots of decaying blooms and writhing centipedes make it clear that this won’t end well. But the film’s biggest sense of tension comes not from supernatural chills, but from Lara’s watchful governess Miss Fontaine, who’s given a prowling menace by Jessica Raine.
Carmilla has a dreamy, coming-of-age-movie feel that sits uneasily with its tacked-on moments of gore. Cinematographer Michael Wood takes an expressive, light-dappled approach to Carmilla and Lara’s adventures, which are full of Summer of Love-style playfulness and disappointingly unresolved sexual tension. When the weight of Victorian morality tears them apart, it feels faintly depressing rather than horrific. For all its gothic-by-numbers reference points, the stakes (pun intended) are too low here.
In cinemas and on streaming platforms from Oct 16.