From debut director Emily Harris comes a screen adaptation of Carmilla – and it’s a movie well worth seeking out too.

Think vampires and you reach for Dracula. But 30 years before he sunk his fangs into our imagination came Carmilla, a novella from Joseph Sheridan la Fanu that has enjoyed an afterlife thanks to its portrayal of female and teenage sexuality.

Emily Harris’s first solo outing as a director, however, is no adaptation, more a re-imagining. The bare bones remain the same, seeing teenager Lara (Hannah Rae) living in an isolated country house with her father (Greg Wise) and strict governess, Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine). Naturally inquisitive, she longs for company of her own age, and her prayers seem to be answered when a carriage crashes nearby and an older girl is brought into the family home. A figure of mystery – with no name, Lara christens her Carmilla – the girl recovers and the two become close. Questions surrounding the newcomer linger, though, with Miss Fontaine convinced she is evil.

That sense of the devil afoot prevails from the opening moment when we see Lara throwing stones into a pond. Nothing unusual, except the shot pans out to reveal her left hand strapped behind her back, so she can only use her right. A world, then, of superstition and simple religious beliefs: crucifixes adorn every room in the house, and when Carmilla (Devrim Lingau) is confronted by an aggressive dog, it’s taken as a sign of her evil nature. As Miss Fontaine observes, animals can sense these things, and what she discovers about the relationship between the two girls proves it.

That, of course, is her opinion. As seen through Harris’s eyes, the emphasis of the novella has been shifted to give equal prominence to the governess. While Lara’s sexuality blossoms, Fontaine’s repressed frustrations simmer beneath the surface and, as played by Jessica Raine, a scream constantly struggles for freedom. It’s perfectly depicted in one meticulously constructed scene when she waits for her tardy pupil to arrive for breakfast, methodically pouring tea and buttering toast. Outwardly calm, the agony of her suspicions is written all over her face, made even more acute by the sound of her scraping knife.

Shrouded in murky candlelit shadows – daylight is shockingly brilliant – Carmilla builds its tension and sense of foreboding with the inevitability of the changing seasons in the world outside. A source of fascination for Lara, they act almost as a narrator, becoming increasingly sinister as the story unfolds.

This is no ordinary vampire flick, if it’s one at all. As an examination of how attitudes and opinions can override facts, it’s an atmospheric, thought-provoking film, one that is well worth the price of your ticket.

[4Stars]

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