For fans of the undead, a favorite topic of debate remains comparing the various film versions of “Dracula.” Even limiting oneself to those explicitly based upon Stoker’s novel, over a dozen versions exist from “Nosferatu” (original and remake) to both Universal versions in 1930, both adaptations that starred Christopher Lee, all three BBC Draculas, the films starring Jack Palance, Gary Oldman, Patrick Bergin, etc. as well as different adaptations in countries from Turkey to Pakistan. Then one gets into the sequels.
But prior to Bram Stoker’s work, one of the most famous pieces of vampire literature was penned by another Irish writer. Joseph Sheridan LeFanu (1814-1873) wrote “Carmilla” a full quarter century before the Transylvanian Count ever saw print. No explicit evidence shows Stoker ever read the novella, but it is difficult to believe he did not. LeFanu’s story includes tropes that found their way into Stoker’s. A more-or-less professional vampire hunter, the idea of a victim perceiving the bite as a semi-erotic dream, doctors summoned to diagnose a mysterious wasting illness—all standards today, but brand spanking new when “Carmilla” was published in 1872.
Differences abound as well, which might explain the relative dearth of filmed versions of this earlier work.
Unlike the (for the time) high-tech mystery/adventure which is “Dracula”, LeFanu’s novella feels dreamlike. Its POV remains resolutely with one narrator, the victim/lover of the title character. Laura. We never learn her last name, although she turns out to be a distant relation of the vampire. As written, “Carmilla” has only two main characters with no more than five supporting ones, fairly minor ones at that. Compare that to the crowded cast in “Dracula” that results in many of them usually ending up cut out during adaptation! Much of the excitement in the story takes place off-stage as it were. Much more time and ink ends up devoted to Laura’s dreams than to talk of the undead. Subtle and sensual details abound. The swans in the moat of the old schloss. Carmilla combing Laura’s hair for hours. The actual feel of blood being drawn, like a stream of water against the bare flesh of a girl’s breast. Whereas the latter novel clearly takes place in physical locations one can find on the map, the former seems set in a place nearly outside time or space—a schloss (castle) amid mist-shrouded forests somewhere in Styria (southwest Austria). Careful examination of the text leads one to believe it takes place around 1845 or earlier. Maybe. Probably. It hard makes much difference.
One would think a classic horror novel about a lesbian vampire would have been filmed more often, and the actual number of genuine film versions (not including a few direct-to-video movies with budgets barely enough to purchase a car) are five in number:
Crypt of the Vampire (1963) is a beautifully photographed version with Christopher Lee in the lead, retaining the essential plot of the story while robbing the heroine of virtually any personality. As per usual for most versions, she also gains a young male suitor.
Blood and Roses (1960) was Roger Vadim’s somewhat faithful/somewhat radical retelling, set in modern Italy and switching the viewpoint from the Laura character to Carmilla herself.
The Vampire Lovers (1970) is the first of Hammer Studios’ so-called Karnstein Trilogy, and despite the often garish choices when it comes to blood, fangs and nudity actually manages notable faithfulness. Of all versions, this one portrays Carmilla with the most sympathy, as a tragic monster.
Nightmare Classics: Carmilla (1989) for Showtime on American cable for some reason transported the whole tale to the antebellum South. Ione Skye as Laura at least seemed something other than a pretty blank slate, a troubled girl at odds with her father played by Roy Dotrice.
Polish TV’s Carmilla (1982) came into my hands via a very, very indirect route. Lacking subtitles, it nevertheless seems remarkably faithful in many ways—not least in that Laura is actually a quiet waiflike creature yet with a vivid personality. The biggest disappointment is that the vampire herself seems to lack nuance and some awkward humor.
Two other versions have existed. One from the 1960s starred Jane Merrow for the BBC but is believed lost forever. Another from French TV in the 1980s was made, but I’ve yet to find a copy so I cannot comment on it. One cannot help but hope that someday a director with the cachet of Francis Ford Coppola will take an interest and assemble the kind of talent that might do this early, eerie and beautiful classic justice.
D.MacDowell Blue blogs at http://zahirblue.blogspot.com/. He graduated from the National Shakespeare Conservatory and is now working on a web series called “End Of The Line” which he likes to describe as “Dexter Meets Twilight“.