Another Lesbian Period Movie
by Emily Donovan
Something you should know about me is that I will sit through any movie ever so long as there are lesbians in it. Superhero, art house, whatever. I’d go. They can be secondary characters. It can take half the movie for us to meet them. I’d like them to survive the events of the story, but it’s been long enough since I came out that that’s no longer a dealbreaker for me.
By no means does this make me a fun audience member. I’ll leave the theater full of notes, having spent most of the two hours silently poking holes in the characters and wondering what, if anything, all of this was supposed to mean. I punch up the script to my beleaguered girlfriend as she drives us home. She waits with love for my flood to drain so she can lighten the mood with her go-to criticism: she thought it was fine except that it didn’t have enough explosions. We have never seen a movie with both lesbians and sufficient explosions.
When I learned that local queer film festivals existed, I googled the closest one and flipped through the PDF of the program with the self-congratulatory frown that I imagine rich people use when they flip through wine menus at Michelin restaurants. Hm, I suppose something otherworldly for the lady. Might I recommend the 7 o’clock Saturday showing?
It was a period horror. The description called it atmospheric. Gothic. Shot in England with lots of candles and green fields.
But my eyes hadn’t reached the description before my mouse clicked to buy tickets. All I needed was the title.
Finally. The lesbian vampire would get big. It was overdue.
The summer when I had a Gothic horror kick, I found a row of Draculas at my local used bookstore. All of them were annotated with footnotes that explained fiddly details like where stuff was within London. The one I chose had appendixes with scholarly articles for further reading. Its previous owner was a high schooler who, in an effort to appease their English teacher, had scribbled words like “theme” and “superstition” every few pages.
The accepted-as-canon thinking about what vampires “really mean” is that they’re a justification for why we’re afraid of The Other. Dracula may look human and sexy, but actually he’s sexy in a bad way, and he has an Eastern European accent, and he will make all of your wives and fiancées worse than dead if you let him buy land in your country. Academics can tell you all about how xenophobic the U.K. was when Dracula blew up.
At showtime, someone from the film fest stood up and alluded to the Dracula heyday. She announced that a professor who studies vampires was in attendance. When I turned around to look for the vamprofessor, there were only three people seated behind me, but all three of them smiled and waved like royalty. As the film fest organizer kept talking, I realized there was going to be a speech. Someone from the row in front of us got up to pee. It was an awkwardly empty theater given how many companies and donors the film fest director had to thank. When she finally finished namedropping alcohol brands and travel blogs, I clapped extra hard to compensate for my generation’s lack of turnout.
I’ll say it. Vampires are gay. Edward Cullen appropriates gay history.
Tons of academic papers have studied how gay vampires are. One literary scholar with whom I would particularly like to have a beer spent who-knows-how-long proving this point for Dracula. She dug through Bram Stoker’s personal letters and the surviving gossip from his friends and concluded that the guy was closeted. He was sort of obsessed with Oscar Wilde, first as a rival writer and then as a cautionary tale. Oscar Wilde was imprisoned, bankrupted, and defamed for being gay. The newspapers of the time, impressively homophobic, went buck wild about it. Count Dracula was what came out when Bram Stoker wrote through the stereotypes that newspapers threw at Oscar Wilde.
It’s no surprise that vampire movies got big in the U.S. in the 1980s, or that mainstream critics finally started pointing out how gay vampires were. It was the AIDS crisis, and Dracula was a monster that turned other people into monsters by mixing his body fluids with theirs. Hello.
There was a lull after the speech, and I realized that we had already worked our way through half of our popcorn. It was room temperature and, except for sporadic pockets of powdered butter, it tasted like going through the motions. Like failed marriage. Like just holding on until retirement. I kept wishing that they would dim the lights already. I had no desire to stop eating, but I wanted more to distract from the texture of gruel between my molars. Finally, the projector replaced the film fest sponsors’ logos with the production company logo, and the movie began.
The Carmilla movie opens with 15-year-old Lara getting quizzed by her severely Christian governess. Lara is left-handed – a dark and terrible secret that makes her a sinner extra susceptible to the devil, didn’t ya know. The governess binds Lara’s left hand behind her back so she’ll be forced to play outside with her right hand. It’s a neat historical detail, and it sets up the status quo well: This is a superstitious home, and the authority figure will inflict any small cruelty she feels is necessary to ward off the devil.
Still, I winced. The entire movie seems to be lit only by natural light or candles. It’s a dope idea for a period piece until night falls on the Bauer estate, everyone is transformed into harsh white faces floating in the dark, and you’re struggling to tell what the characters are supposed to be looking at. The Favourite manages to pull off this candlelight trick while still keeping things decipherable.
The naturally-lit daytime shots are as pretty and atmospheric as promised, but they’re also over-exposed. It drains the color from everything. Or perhaps this was intentional. Maybe it’s a twist on the sepia that movies used to use to remind us that these are ye olden times.
Something sticky clacks against my shoes as I shift in my seat.
Considering it’s set in the 1700s and full of über Christians, this movie is surprisingly un-homophobic. Or maybe it was supposed to be homophobic, but the idea just got lost in the muddy dialogue. At one point, the strict Christian governess acknowledges Lara’s obvious crush on Carmilla. They go for a walk together and she, I guess, warns Lara to not become a teen mom?
The book is surprisingly un-homophobic too.
Joseph Sheridan le Fanu published the novella Carmilla chapter-by-chapter from 1871 to 1872. This was decades before his fellow Irishman Bram Stoker published the more famous Dracula in 1897. But I did not find a surplus of Carmillas at the used book store like I did with Draculas. Actually, I had to repeat the author’s name – Joseph Sheridan le Fanu – several times to the employee. We tried the S’s, the L’s, the F’s. They didn’t have any copies. I tried another used store and then a local indie book shop. Nothing. I went online and ordered a copy new. It was $3, which I found suspicious. When it arrived, I showed it to all of my friends like I couldn’t believe it was a real book. It jumps straight into the text without so much as a copyright page much the intro essay and appendix fanfare that Dracula had.
Carmilla was the first big female vampire. And a lesbian vampire at that.
Well, technically, some people say that Elizabeth Báthory was the first female vampire. She was a serial killer from Transylvania who, from 1590 to 1610, imprisoned, tortured, and killed virgin girls so she could bathe in their blood. She was a real-life human and real-life serial killers should not be rewarded, so I’m not counting her. Carmilla gets the glory.
The Carmilla novella inspired a slew of trashy stories and movies where sexy lady vampires hit on women and therefore get staked, beheaded, and otherwise slaughtered. Lesbian vampire stories were so much more widely circulated than lesbian human stories that a gay Modernist writer used “vampire” as a euphemism for “lesbian” in his 1916 book Inclinations.
My fellow former English majors who took one or more Gothic lit classes are probably wondering if book Carmilla is actually a lesbian – à la Theodora and Nell in The Haunting of Hill House book – or if she’s just a Very Special Friend – in the vein of Henry Clerval to Victor Frankenstein. I say that Carmilla is definitely gay for our narrator, 19-year-old Laura, but Laura is… I don’t know, restrained? Not opposed, but not particularly curious about Carmilla either.
Book Carmilla is alluring but lazy. She regularly takes Laura’s hand with “a fond pressure” and starts “breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with a tumultuous respiration” that was “like the ardour of a lover.” Carmilla would then draw Laura to her, “her hot lips travelled along (Laura’s) cheek in kisses,” and she would “whisper, almost in sobs, ‘You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one for ever.’”
Hot. Hot in a things-you-might-whisper-to-your-lover-in-the-foggy-dawn-on-the-banks-of-the-moor way. Unambiguously putting the moves on Laura. This was huge for the 1870s.
Several minutes into the movie, a group stumbled in as quietly as the spilled soda glue traps and creaky seats allowed them to. Later, after the lights came back on, I would recognize one of them as a former student of mine. She wore her keys on a carabiner on her belt loop if you know what I’m saying, which I would have accepted as explanation enough for her presence. (Lesbians categorically turn out for sapphic movies. The weekend that Happiest Season went live, more new subscribers signed up for Hulu so they could watch it than had for any other movie in Hulu history.) But after the movie, my former student told me she came because of the Carmilla webseries.
Oh, sweet summer child.
Despite the Carmilla book being brooding, gay, and hot, the webseries was the only adaptation of it that has gotten any real traction. For the record: the Carmilla webseries deserved traction. It’s a delight. A true joy. Something I binge-watched on my phone until 2 a.m. even though I had to teach in the morning because I couldn’t resist just one more episode, OK, two more, OK, I’ll just finish the first season. It’s made of 2- to 6-minute YouTube videos released from 2014 to 2016, plus a 2017 follow-up movie that rabid young queers at conventions demanded.
But the webseries isn’t the real Carmilla. Just about the only things that it takes from the book are the character names and who was the vampire. It’s a campy happy ending. It did nothing to steel my dear former student for the 2019 period horror film Carmilla.
The 2019 Carmilla movie kept showing close-ups of bugs. I counted at least ten shots before I started closing my eyes and keeping them closed until the next line of dialogue signaled that my tribulation had ended.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire does a lot of close-up shots too, but if you just watched the close-up shots of Marianne painting without seeing the rest of that movie, you’d still get a whole story. Héloise’s face and body emerge one brushstroke of green or peach at a time. As Marianne’s hands measure and paint, we reflect on how much work goes into beauty. How much care and confidence it takes to create something. A painting is like a relationship, that movie is saying. You build it, slowly. Sometimes you were wrong about what you thought you wanted to create, and you have to start fresh. At some point, you stop working on it, and it’s finished. Over.
There isn’t any progression to the gross-ass bug shots in the Carmilla movie. All I got out of them was bile lining my esophagus.
Twenty minutes into the Carmilla movie, our title character shows up. It’s several more minutes before she gets to say any lines. Unlike book Carmilla, she’s mischievous in a high-energy way. The actress keeps doing this shiny-eyed squint thing that, although unlike book Carmilla, adds a great is-she-the-bad-guy-or-not horror movie intrigue.
But this isn’t the big, exciting difference between the Carmilla movie and its source material.
The big difference is that the characters in the Carmilla movie think they’re in a horror movie.
That’s not the case in the book. In both the Dracula and the Carmilla book, none of our heroes have ever heard of a vampire before. In the late 1700s, this was supposed to create mystery and creeping dread, but reading them two and a half centuries and a Twilight tetralogy later, the feeling is more early 2000s spoof movie than Scream.
In Dracula, the townspeople urge our narrator to not approach Dracula’s castle. They make the sign of the cross at him when he mentions who he’s going to meet. One local mom puts a crucifix around his neck and says it’s for his mother. And yet our brave dumbass laughs at how superstitious and rural these good people are.
The Carmilla book does this too. Laura keeps getting bit at night, and she doesn’t do much about it. Carmilla sleeps all day, sleepwalks at night, and declines to pray with the rest of the house. Nobody seems to read more into it than typical languid teen behavior. At one point, a painting from the 1600s is found in a nearby ruined castle. It’s a portrait of Carmilla, but she is labeled with the name Mircalla. Anyone who’s ever yelled at their TV can tell you this obviously means that Carmilla is an immortal monster who plays Jumble with the letters of her name every few decades, but Laura excitedly calls this glaring red flag a nifty “miracle.” The residents of these classic vampire books are as oblivious as possible until their hands are forced.
Meanwhile, in the 2019 Carmilla movie, Carmilla has a mainland European accent, and this alone is enough to put the adults around Lara on edge. A local doctor won’t shut up about how there’s some mysterious illness going around town that’s killing off young girls. Apparently, this illness can be caused by letting a stranger into your home. By the time an otherwise friendly dog barks at movie Carmilla, the adults have no further questions. It’s time for the trusty wooden stake and mallet combination.
It’s not totally clear if they’re right. Is movie Carmilla a vampire or is she just a naughty rando with bad timing? I don’t know. I’m not sure if the movie knows either. You can rent it on iTunes or Amazon Prime for about $4 if you want to take a whack at it.
Oh, and one last thing. My girlfriend wants me to warn you that there aren’t enough explosions. None, in fact, which is ten too few.
Emily Donovan (she/her/hers) is a lesbian writer from the American Midwestern. She co-wrote Donald August Versus the Land of Flowers, a comedy fiction podcast, and her other writing has published in Musing the Margins: Essays on Craft, Saw Palm, and others. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing at Florida Atlantic University. You can listen to the comedy fiction podcast here or find her on Twitter @emdons