Nightmare Classics “Carmilla”

As noted elsewhere at, at least two films based on Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s vampire classic are on their way to movie theaters.  One, Styria, remains in post-production whereas The Moth Diaries is seeking a distributor.

Time to take a look at the last major version of Carmilla maybe?  Why not?

Nightmare Classics back in the late 1980s offered various adaptations of horror stories, overseen by  Shelly Duvall.  This particular version switched several details of the tale (pretty much standard operating procedure for dramatizations of Le Fanu’s story).  Laura, the lead, became Marie.  The setting was altered from Styria (a province in Austria) to somewhere in the American antebellum South.   A schloss became a plantation.  Gone was the story of General Spielsdorf and his doomed ward Berthe, replaced by a police inspector and an almost stereotypical black nanny (presumably a slave).  The former, played by Roddy McDowell, frankly comes across as one of the roles his character in the original Fright Night might have played–a kind of Van Helsing clone.

Yet screenwriter Jonathan Furst (who, according to IMDB, never sold another screenplay, perhaps unfortunately) also took the story in a refreshingly different direction.  Here we find no handsome young man to rescue Marie from the lesbian vampire’s clutches.   Tension instead arises from the very troubled relationship Marie doesn’t enjoy with her father (played by Roy Dotrice).   Her mother has gone, and Marie chaffs under her father’s strict rules which she blames for it.  Likewise he comes across as a bit of a control freak, not really pleased to see his daughter turning into a young woman.  Just as he clearly becomes more suspicious and jealous of all the time Marie spends with her new friend.

Like the original, Carmilla comes to this household via a carriage accident–in this case she is the sole survivor.  Played by Meg Tilly, she certainly resemble the languid dark beauty described by Le Fanu.  Likewise Ione Skye comes across as a lonely, pretty girl-woman living in an isolated estate which has become her whole world.  Very much like Laura.

Unlike previous versions, Marie actually has a personality, even a spine.  Her resentment of her father, simmering so long, finally erupts as she gains more confidence.   Intriguingly, she seems to learn the truth.    Marie even allows Carmilla willingly.  The offer becomes more or less explicit:  Come with me.  Into the night.  Leave your family and humanity behind–forever.  At least at first, Marie accepts.  More than the vast majority of Carmilla adaptations, this version explores and defines the relationship between the two.   Explicitly erotic, although not really sexual.  Both lonely, longing for the other.  But also, neither quite what they seem.  Marie judges her father harshly, but still loves him and longs for his affection.  Carmilla cares for Marie, may even love her, but sees everyone else as a cat sees a mouse–her natural prey.

The climax manages to both intrigue and confuse.  I don’t quite understand the business about the tomb and what keeps people from just entering it.  Nor why it is a whole coven of vampires seems not to be feeding–at least no one seems to have noticed it.   But Marie’s discovery that her mother is a vampire now, taken all those years ago by Carmilla, results in an abrupt change in her attitude.  Maybe too abrupt to be honest.   Still more intriguing is the finale, when she returns to her bedroom to find Carmilla still alive (or undead) and waiting for her.   Much more exciting than the original to be honest, and putting the vampire’s death squarely at the hands of our heroine.

And yet, too late.  Marie’s father acts relieved beyond words.  Things are as they should be, including his daughter who he immediately treats as a child once more.  He misses the strong hint we the audience instantly perceive.  Marie has changed.  She too is now a vampire.

Nightmare Classics version has a lot going for it, but let us also note some very real flaws.  The special effects are clunky.  Anyone looking for genuine horror should look elsewhere.  Roddy McDowell is acted out of the water by the rest of the cast, who to be sure often have to contend with rather superficial dialogue.  The whole plot about figuring out there’s a vampire and it is Carmilla would be sub par for any weekly police drama.   And the less said about the quality of the swarm of bats the better!

Yet it remains a beautiful looking film, with the leads going very fine jobs.   It remains one of the most interesting versions ever filmed, avoiding the cliches and stereotypes of The Vampire Lovers or Crypt of the Vampire.  Finding a copy may be a bit of a challenge, but a search on YouTube or Ebay can certainly turn up results.  Well worth it for fans of the undead, especially the female of the species.


By david

David MacDowell Blue blogs at Night Tinted Glasses.  He graduated from the National Shakespeare Conservatory and is the author of The Annotated Carmilla. and Your Vampire Story (And How to Write It) as well as a theatrical adaptation of Carmilla.


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