Thursday, April 23, 2009

Hammering Le Fanu's Carmilla

Having watched two films that claim to be based on Le Fanu’s marvelous story, one so bad I've erased its name from my memory, I finally tracked down Hammer’s “The Vampire Lovers’ which is the first of their Karnstein trilogy and supposed to be a reasonably faithful rendition. It’s a good example of what happens when form, style and content get separated.

The ambiguity at the centre of Laura’s written narrative was always going to be vaporized in a film unless handled with care. But to switch, mindlessly, the first person narration, with all its carefully constructed ambiguities, for the flat third person stare of the camera, was guaranteed to kill what made the story interesting as a piece of writing.

So let us consider the erotic potential of a predatory lesbian vampire. Didn’t take long did it? For those who respond to that phrase with the same excitement as they would to ”the mould on last week’s custard” the repeated sight of the leading lady dropping her clothes at every possible opportunity is unlikely to cover up the holes in the plot, the bad dialogue or the generally crummy acting. Though you gotta love those painted castles with their slightly wrong perspectives on the painted backdrop. Unfortunately someone decided “predatory lesbian vampire” was a free ride to the box office, without actually stopping to think why or if or how that could be made unsettling or frightening or even interesting. Carmilla isn’t a “horror Story” as such. But it’s not Victorian porn either. “The Vampire lovers” isn’t a horror story either, rather a series of events that provide opportunities for actresses to get undressed.

Give the scriptwriter his dues, having decided his focus, he follows what’s left of the story. But his next mistake is to set everything out in chronological order. Le Fanu reveals his plot like a modern Asian horror film, so that the exposition is part of the climax. In terms of simplified sequence the written story goes: C.B.A.D. Not the Hammer version. B must follow A and be followed by C. Straightening out the chronology is a mistake. It’s now obvious from the start that Carmilla is a vampire and preys on young girls (we get the general’s story, B, in full before what should be Laura’s narrative C), and so Carmilla’s arrival at Laura’s schloss is no surprise.

The written story gains its effects because of the narrator’s inability to understand what is happening, (even though the reader sometimes does), her paradoxical attraction and repulsion to Carmilla, and the equal ambiguity of Carmilla’s feelings for Laura. Because it’s told first person we are positioned to share Laura’s confusion and much of the story doesn’t make sense to her until the end. But in the film there’s no mystery about Carmilla’s actions. Given the obvious desire to run with the sexual element the disturbing slippage in the story, where it’s never really clear what’s happening, is dispersed. In the film it’s made very clear exactly what is happening.

There’s some minor plot tinkering, some of it to acknowledge perhaps at least a hundred years of Vampire fiction between Le Fanu and the film. The only major additions are the governess’s switch from fat and old and friendly to young and pretty, the disappearance of the nanny, the introduction of the idiot butler, (who plays the policeman in part two?). The father’s absence which provides the governess with some small moral dilemma…and the murder of the doctor.

Oh and the compulsory “good looking” young man who can "save" Laura and reassert the hetro-normative discourse.(I never thought I’d get to use that phrase). Though why they change Laura's anme to Emma is indeed a mystery.

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