Monday, October 30, 2017

The Carmilla Movie Review: The Ghosts of Carmilla’s Past Won’t Define Its Future [Contributor: Melanie Moyer]


“Every love story is a ghost story.” — David Foster Wallace

Spoilers for The Carmilla Movie are included below. Read at your own risk.

If I tell you I’m thinking of a 19th century work of fiction penned by an Irish author about a European vampire who becomes obsessed with a upstanding young woman, you would guess Dracula right? But everyone’s favorite count was late to the party (alternative title: Dracula Shows Up to Vampire Media 15 Minutes Late With Starbucks But Gets to Be the Poster Boy). About 26 years earlier, Joseph Sheridan LeFanu penned a story about a century old countess who exercises her vampiric thrall over a terrified young woman.

Fast forward to 2015 when an independent web series out of Smokebomb Entertainment reimagines the story in a modern-day university, takes back the predatory lesbian trope, showcases a plethora of queer identities on screen, and wins a Canadian Screen Award, several AfterEllen Visibility Awards, and racks nominations at the Streamys and Shorty Awards across three seasons. Now it’s a full-length film set five years after the end of the series where Laura and Carmilla are snug in their domestic life in a Queen East apartment before Laura is beset with strange dreams of Carmilla’s past lover, and Carmilla herself is biologically regressing from certified homo sapien back into a vampire.

Many great horror films personify the past in its villain. Freddy Krueger serves as the demon of children’s dreams as vengeance for his (completely justified) murder at the hands of local parents, Mrs. Voorhees stalks counselors at Camp Crystal Lake in revenge for their neglect allowing her son to drown, the demon possessing Regan comes straight from Father Merrin’s past and attacks Father Karras’ lack of faith, and even home invasion films like Get Out portray a man trying to right the untimely death of his daughter. There’s more than one way to tell a ghost story.

So how does Carmilla look at the ghosts of the past?

On the one hand, with literal ones that just won’t let Carmilla be after 300 years of being kind of an jerk, as well as her own ghost of millennial confusion (same). And the film makes what will likely be a polarizing choice to answer the question of if Carmilla deserves her human life and if she even wants it. Ultimately in our Happy Ending Override, Carmilla gives up her life to free the ghosts she conjured up, trapped in a netherworld of nightmares, making the point that her humanity — her ability to age alongside Laura — wasn’t the point of their happy ending. There’s this great bit from Syd Field that makes the point that while descriptors and aspects make up characteristics, the character themselves is the choices they make. I think that’s potent here where Carmilla’s humanity isn’t defined by her pulse, but by her choice to act on empathy. A choice that, for once, had absolutely nothing to do with Laura and actively went against Laura’s wishes. Yay development!

This film effectively undoes that clean break at the end of the series, though there are hints (such as Laura’s report on the discovery of a fountain of youth and Mattie’s post-credit scene setting up for more stories) that there might be workarounds to the gut-wrenching possibility that Carmilla will have to watch all her friends die after all. This particular bit of self-sacrifice didn’t come with a reverse switch, but the movie tells us that’s okay.

And then, on the other hand, there are the ghosts of Carmilla’s own literary past.

By going back to the events of 1872 novella, this modern adaption literally stares down its problematic first life. In that context, it’s a powerful image to open with: The Laura of 2017 — a feminist and queer icon for the internet community — looking at her (literal) mirror reflection... the 19th century version who history will remember as a victim of predatory lesbianism. It’s yet another win for the queer community taking back its own history. It cleans up some parts, like presenting Elle (the “Laura” of the original) quite in love with Carmilla, rather than having an existential crisis over her attraction as she does in the novella. It also shows our present-day Laura kind of enjoying the bits of the novella where Carmilla slunk about at night like a seductress, “terrorizing” her. I mean, granted, the non-consensual blood drinking and the lying was still pretty Not Great™ but gone is the Laura who tried to chop off Carmilla’s head because God forbid she have a crush.

This film also made a great point that we are the makers of our own unhappiness. Elle was unwilling to accept her own role in her death, attempting to shove the memory away and blame the thing that she could actually get her hands on. The issues of Carmilla’s continued vampirism were nothing more than what-ifs Laura conjured up based on societal expectations and her own quarter-life crisis. Carmilla herself was the one who forced the ghosts to manifest when a therapist (who probably should get their license revoked) forced her into some exposure therapy before she was ready. Some problems are very real, but many of the ones our characters go through here required introspection and communication, not spells, five-year plans, or a magical broach.

Beyond all that? This movie was just a ton of fun to watch and I hope Smokebomb gets to make more content in this universe (rumors about a young adult series). You can find the original web series on the KindaTV YouTube channel and the film itself is streaming on Fullscreen and available for purchase here.


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