Until the recent Curse of Styria, it had been literally decades since a major film adaptation of Joseph Sheridan LeFanu’s gothic classic Carmilla. Now, yet another film version is making the rounds of film festivals. For what it is worth, I recommend both!
The Unwanted may be the least literal of the two. Or not. Depends upon how one looks at it. This motion picture, from Bret Wood (who ventured into vampirism at least once previously in his brilliant but disturbing Psychopathia Sexualis), relocates events out of Europe and into the equivalent of remote Styria to be found within the United States. The town of New Canaan, a backwater so out of touch it has a drive-in cinema showing modern movies. Here a tough-looking young woman disembarks from a bus then hikes a distance to a farm. Her name? Carmilla Karnstein (Christen Orr). Years before her mother Millarca lived here. Or at least she’d left this address. No one’s heard from her since.
Immediately Carmilla meets the other two leads–Laura (Hannah Rose Fierman) and her father, Troy (William Katt). The echoes of LeFanu’s tale are obvious to anyone familiar. But more than the names and surface details, the themes and undercurrents which kept this classic read over and over since its publication in 1872 emerge. In new shapes, to be sure. With sharper edges. Matters avoided delicately while Victoria reigned need re-imagining with far more vividness.
And that is precisely what we get.
The nature of the vampire story nearly always draws a parallel with the detective tale, the mystery. In The Unwanted, this ends up inverted. Rather than Carmilla being the central mystery, she plays the role of lead detective seeking some truth about her long-vanished mother. “Inverted” proves an excellent way to describe this entire film, at least as an adaptation. Explaining that in detail would involve way too many spoilers, but a few examples suffice.
Laura’s father is not a retired gentleman, but a farmer. The official reports quoted by Laura a the end of the novella are sought out by Carmilla near the very beginning. It is Laura who initiates the relationship between herself and Carmilla. Even the vampirism ends up turned on its head in a real way, as does the supernatural element (that taken directly from LeFanu’s original, but again turned around into an unexpected shape).
More, like all good detective stories we don’t get the full truth until the end, yet the clues and crumbs of truth whet our appetite throughout. Yes, we pretty soon suspect that Laura’s mother (Lynn Talley) and Carmilla’s (Kylie Brown) were more than friends. But how much more? Troy almost certainly did something pretty horrible, but how bad was it?
Even more compelling is the how the characters become themselves mysteries, dropping hints of complex truths with nearly every single breath. For this let me praise the cast as well as the director. Film as a medium remains uniquely suited to catch the power of one person watching another, and throughout this flick the characters are forever doing so. Nor are their reactions simple, but rather as complex as a Mozart Symphony. Let us face it–most performances in horror flicks barely reach the level of a tune played on a kazoo! Not in this one. All three of the leads (as well as both supporting players) portray a wonderful range of attitudes and reactions that prove fascinating.
At the same an subtle but fiercely growing tension mounts from the opening shot. Every scene seems like a prelude to some shattering revelation, some dark secret about to emerge. There’s good reason for it to feel like that. Setting this story in the rural south gives the whole tale a taste of gothic quite different from Eastern Europe or the chilly towns of New England. Here, folks smile and are friendly, in part because they so rarely get to be themselves. Religion begins as comfort and too often becomes an excuse. Nature is beautiful but raw. Families grow close enough to choke each other. In the South, there’s never any question of whether something waits in the shadows.
Of course something does. Always. But what? In that detail lies the mystery and the horror, as well as the identity of the vampire.
Yes, the greatest classic adaptation of Sheridan Lefanu Carmilla.