Carmilla: Archetype of the Lesbian Vampire

Originally published October 6, 2012.

In 1872, 25 years before publication of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Irish author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu wrote a Gothic novella called Carmilla.  First appearing in the magazine, The Dark Blue, and then in a collection of Le Fanu’s short stories called In a Glass Darkly, Carmilla is the tale of a female vampire preying upon young women in the state of Styria in southeastern Austria.

Today, the title character is widely considered the archetype of the lesbian vampire in popular culture.  Ever since its publication, adaptations of Carmilla have regularly appeared on stage and screen.  Of the movies I’ve seen (and am going to talk about here), very few are faithful to the original story, but all feature at least some characteristics of the original character.

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Carmilla (1872) – The Novella

Before we look at the movie adaptations, it’s important to know the story of the original novella.  I find it particularly interesting how various movies have chosen to either feature or ignore the lesbian themes of the source material, not that there was anything salacious about Carmilla’s sexuality in 1872.  Instead of graphic depictions of woman-on-woman sex, the story depicts a more subtle love in passages like this one from Chapter IV: “Her Habits-A Saunter”, where the narrator, Laura, describes an encounter:

“She used to place her pretty arms about my neck, draw me to her, and laying her cheek to mine, murmur with her lips near my ear… And when she had spoken such a rhapsody, she would press me more closely in her trembling embrace, and her lips in soft kisses gently glow upon my cheek.”

However, immediately following this description, Laura explains that she does not necessarily reciprocate these feelings; rather, she’s held in some kind of power by Carmilla:

“…I used to wish to extricate myself; but my energies seemed to fail me.  Her murmured words sounded like a lullaby in my ear, and soothed my resistance into a trance, from which I only seemed to recover myself when she withdrew her arms.”

Living with her widowed father in a castle in Styria, 18-year old Laura is disappointed that General Spielsdorf is no longer bringing his niece to visit (she died suddenly), but is thrilled when a mysterious woman arranges to leave her daughter (Carmilla) in their care after a carriage accident in front of their home.  Laura and Carmilla grow close, but their relationship is complicated by the feelings and actions related above.

Carmilla exhibits odd behavior such as abrupt mood changes, sleeping during the day, sleepwalking at night and reacting violently when a Christian hymn is sung.  She’s also the spitting image of a woman in a portrait from 1698, “Mircalla, Countess Karnstein”.  En route to a deserted village called “Karnstein”, Laura and her father meet General Spielsdorf, who, in a story within the story, relates how exactly his niece died.

It seems a mysterious woman arranged to leave her daughter (Millarca) in his care while she attended to urgent business.  His niece soon became mysteriously ill (with symptoms that Laura now possesses, by the way) and the General was convinced she was the victim of a vampire.  One night, he hid in a closet and watched a cat-like creature attack her.  He leapt from the closet and the startled creature turned into Millarca, who fled.  His niece then died.

If readers have not yet figured it out, Carmilla and Millarca are anagrams for Countess Mircalla Karnstein.  Laura’s father and General Spielsdorf are joined by Baron Vordenburg, whose ancestor supposedly destroyed all the vampires in the area a long time ago.  They locate Mircalla’s tomb and destroy her body.

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Vampyr (1932)

The first feature-length movie officially based on the works of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu is the French-German film, Vampyr (1932), although the opening credits say it is based on the entire collection, In a Glass Darkly, rather than simply Carmilla.  I find very little in Vampyr that is similar to the plot of the original novella, so I assume key elements came from other stories in the collection.  In this movie, the female vampire is not Carmilla (or any of its anagrams) and there is no mention of any Karnsteins or the novella’s lesbian themes.

Vampyr is not a silent movie; however, there is very little dialogue and most of its exposition is revealed through title cards.  Allan Gray (Nicolas de Gunzburg) is introduced as a traveler with an interest in the supernatural.  While staying at an inn, he wanders upon a castle where one of its inhabitants, a young woman named Leone, appears to be the victim of a vampire.  Ultimately, the vampire is tracked to the grave of Marguerite Chopin, where she is killed by driving a metal bar through her heart.

This is only a fraction of the story in Vampyr.  It is part of a larger plot involving a mysterious doctor who is the movie’s true villain.  But neither story matters as much as the style and atmosphere of Vampyr.  The movie is slow and sometimes doesn’t seem to make sense, but offers some of the most haunting imagery I’ve ever seen in a horror movie.  For me, though, it peaks early and becomes a little repetitive and tiresome by the end.

For its time, Vampyr is incredibly inventive.  For example, ghosts, or what I assume are ghosts, are portrayed as shadows that rise from the ground and move across the landscape.  The scene that sticks with me, though, is a dream or vision Allan Gray has of being buried alive.  I couldn’t tell you how or why it fits into the story, but it’s a classic.

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Blood and Roses (1960)

The next movie based on Carmilla (that I’ve seen) is Blood and Roses (1960).  It introduces elements from the novella, although the story structure is not the same.  Here, the family name is von Karnstein, but rather than the actual vampire Millarca rising, it’s her spirit that possesses her descendant, Carmilla.

Carmilla (Elsa Martinelli) is jealous of Georgia Monte Verdi (Annette Vadim) because she is marrying her cousin, Leopoldo von Karnstein (Mel Ferrer), with whom she is in love.  When an accident in the family cemetery unearths Millarca’s grave, Carmilla in drawn to it.  That’s where the possession or transfer of souls (or whatever you want to call it) takes place.  Blood and Roses isn’t as straightforward as this brief synopsis makes it sound.  In fact, I’m not able to recount the details of the story for you without the Internet Movie Database to assist.

Carmilla focuses her attacks on Georgia, I assume because she believes that she can then be with Leopoldo.  Director Roger Vadim (And God Created Woman) gives us a smoldering scene or two between the two women.  The lesbian themes are there for the first time; however, I don’t believe Millarca (or Carmilla) are lesbians, because they were/are both in love with men.

While there is not exactly a story within a story like there is in the novella, there is a detailed verbal recounting of the von Karnstein family history that’s similar.  In 1765 (nearly 100 years later than in the novella), the von Karnsteins were believed to be vampires.  All but one, Millarca, were destroyed.  She was saved by her cousin, Ludwig von Karnstein, with whom she was in love.  When he was later unfaithful to her, each of his subsequent fiancées died mysteriously before their weddings.  Missing from this history is what ultimately happened to Millarca.  If she was a vampire, was she destroyed?  How did she end up in a grave, her body unable to rise, but her spirit ready to wander?

Blood and Roses is one of those movies I feel like I should watch again, because I don’t understand why it is so highly regarded in the horror community.  Vampyr, I understand; it’s artful and moody.  But Blood and Roses has no such aspirations; it just sordid to be sordid.

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Crypt of the Vampire (aka Terror in the Crypt) (1964)

The weakest of the Carmilla adaptations is the Italian oddity, Crypt of the Vampire, which I found on DVD named Terror in the Crypt.  It borrows largely from the source material; however, vampires not being enough for this story, it also throws in witchcraft and Satanism.  There are Karnsteins galore, but none named Carmilla.

Laura Karnstein (Audry Amber) is tormented by nightmares and is actually suspected of killing members of the family.  Her father (Christopher Lee) believes she’s possessed by Scirra of Karnstein, a witch who cursed the family centuries ago.  While investigating Scirra’s history, a carriage breaks down in front of the castle and Lyuba (Ursula Davis) becomes a guest.  Guess what?  When a portrait of Scirra is discovered, it resembles Lyuba.

The relationship between Laura and Lyuba is similar to that in the original story, although it’s the most squeaky-clean version of any of the adaptations.  Minus the subplot of the housekeeper using the hand of one of the victims to worship the devil, we end up in the same place: the Karnstein tomb.  When it is opened, Lyuba lies in it and is destroyed.

The film transfer on the Terror in the Crypt DVD is grainy and jumpy.  But I don’t think we can blame that entirely for the movie’s low production values.  It plays like a foreign TV movie discovered in a vault deeper than Carmilla’s, but with little effort made to restore it.  When you say that about a movie starring Christopher Lee, there’s a real problem somewhere.

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Hammer’s “Karnstein Trilogy”

In 1970, Hammer Films released the most faithful version of Carmilla that I’ve seen.  The Vampire Lovers takes the plot points of the original story and puts them in chronological order.  So we first see Baron Hartog (aka Baron Vordenburg) destroy a vampire, we then see a woman years later leave her daughter Carmilla (Ingrid Pitt) with General von Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing) and his daughter, Laura (Pippa Steel), and we then see the bulk of the story unfold at the household of Mr. Morton with his daughter, Emma (Madeline Smith).  Even though some of the names have changed, we end up in the same place: Carmilla’s grave, where she is destroyed.

Following the success of The Vampire Lovers, Hammer quickly produced two other movies loosely based on Carmilla: Lust for a Vampire (1971) and Twins of Evil (1971).  The subsequent movies are not sequels; they merely use the story of the Karnstein vampires as a springboard for exploring (and exploiting) the explicit lesbian themes of the novella.

Many horror fans adore The Vampire Lovers and many Hammer fans claim it as their favorite Hammer film.  But I find it to be the weakest of the trilogy.  Ingrid Pitt makes a handsome vampire, and The Vampire Lovers catapulted her to fame, but she’s not even my favorite lesbian vampire in the series.

That would be Yutte Stensgaard in the second film, Lust for a Vampire.  She plays Mircalla, resurrected in 1830 by her parents, Count and Countess Karnstein.  When she checks into a local boarding school, the movie threatens to become the most lesbian-explicit version yet.  Instead, the beautiful vampire becomes the obsession of two men: the headmaster (Ralph Bates) and a visiting author (Michael Johnson), the latter perhaps a nod to earlier Carmilla adaptation, Vampyr.

For me, the true revelation in the Karnstein trilogy is its final movie, Twins of Evil.  Furthest from the original story, it’s sometimes considered an unofficial prequel.  When identical twins (Playboy models Mary and Madeleine Collinson) arrive to stay with their puritanical uncle (Peter Cushing), one is tempted by the evil Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas), who has just become a vampire by raising Countess Mircalla Karnstein from her grave.  Following the standard beheading of the lesbian vampire in her crypt, Twins of Evil offers an exciting epilogue in which Cushing battles Thomas on the staircase of a castle.

Oddly, as Hammer’s reputation descended in the early 70s with its increasing focus on sex, each entry in the Karnstein Trilogy becomes decreasingly sexy, focusing less on the lesbian themes.  The Vampire Lovers seems the most exploitative to me, with more unnecessary scenes of scantily-clad women than the others, and is therefore my least favorite.  (Plus, the story is often repetitive.  I wish I had a nickel for every time characters discussed removing garlic from the room of vampire victim Emma!)

Twins of Evil, though, may actually become my favorite Hammer film.  Peter Cushing, who dropped out of Lust for a Vampire due to his wife’s illness, returns in Twins of Evil following her death.  Whether he’s still grieving for her or simply performing an acting tour de force, he is nothing short of amazing.  Director John Hough, who would go on to helm some of my 70s favorites (The Legend of Hell House and Escape to Witch Mountain among them) has a distinct style and the score is surprisingly lush. Twins of Evil deserves a more complete review, which I hope to soon provide.

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The Blood Spattered Bride (1972)

My second favorite movie adaptation of Carmilla is the Spanish version entitled The Blood Spattered Bride.  When a descendant (Simon Andreu) of Mircalla Karnstein arrives at his childhood home with his new bride Susan (Maribel Martin), Susan begins having nightmares and is haunted by the image of a beautiful woman.  The husband discovers a naked woman named Carmilla buried in the sand who, you guessed it, is really Mircalla, as well as the woman of the wife’s dreams.

The two women engage in an intense affair where Susan becomes a vicious murderer.  But The Blood Spattered Bride is almost more a thriller than it is horror; dealing more with a mysterious dagger than a vampire’s fangs, even though both women are discovered in coffins at the end.  The lesbian themes are stronger here than in any of the movies I’ve discussed.  It is also the most atmospheric and mysterious, with nifty psychological twist at the end.

After watching all these movies, a question comes to mind: Why do none of these Carmilla adaptations come from the United States?  The movies in this article were made in Germany, France, Italy, England and Spain.  Are we still so puritanical that the lesbian themes are taboo?   Maybe the story is structurally difficult to film.  That would certainly explain the vast differences in the versions that do exist.  More likely, it isn’t considered “commercial”.  But for a good part of Europe, the novella Carmilla has inspired movies for nearly 80 years now.  I’d like to see us take a crack at it on this side of the pond.

One thought on “Carmilla: Archetype of the Lesbian Vampire

  1. Pingback: Barnes & Noble Halves Criterion Prices | Classic Horrors

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