X-rated—Carmilla and The Vampire Lovers



Tony Canavan gets under the skin of a Gothic classic

‘Funeral’: illustration by Michael Fitzgerald for Carmilla in The Dark Blue (January 1872). The incomparable Ingrid Pitt as Carmilla in the 1970 film version.


For an author who has mainly a limited cult following today, Sheridan Le Fanu is enormously influential. Not only did he establish vampire fiction as we know it, influencing writers from Bram Stoker to Anne Rice, but his work has also been adapted for film, opera, TV, stage and radio many times. His pioneering vampire story was Carmilla, first published in serial form in 1871–2 in The Dark Blue, a Londonbased literary magazine, 26 years before Stoker’s Dracula. In this novel, Le Fanu established the template of the charismatic shape-shifting bloodsucker who is happier moving about at night.

Le Fanu was born in 1814 in Dublin, where he spent his early years before the family moved to Limerick. The Great Famine of the 1840s aroused an interest in politics, and this influenced his early novels when he decided to become a writer. He started out as the author of patriotic historical fiction in the style of Walter Scott , but he found commercial success as a writer of Gothic fiction. Many subsequent authors acknowledged his influence. Today he is best remembered for Uncle Silas, The House by the Churchyard and Carmilla, which he completed shortly before his death in 1873.

His last novel has quite a modern feel to it. The language is not so overblown as we have come to expect from Gothic fiction and it is narrated by Laura, an intelligent, strong-willed young woman facing up to dark and evil forces (something of a trope in Gothic fiction). The unfolding of the plot takes time and it is subtly played out, although the denouement is not such a shock for the modern reader already familiar with the genre.

Unlike later Gothic novels, there is little explicit horror or gore. The realisation that something terrible is happening is revealed slowly and is all the more thrilling as it is told through the eyes of its victim. The action takes place in the claustrophobic atmosphere of a remote castle, as Laura’s father, an Englishman in the Austrian service, takes in a young woman, Carmilla, injured after a carriage accident. The two young women become close friends, but Laura soon detects something obsessive and unnerving in Carmilla’s devotion to her. With mixed feelings of repugnance and attraction, Laura is drawn to Carmilla despite herself. In the meantime, local girls are dying off at an alarming rate from an unexplained illness, which the local peasants believe is supernatural in origin. Things come to a head when Laura begins to display the same symptoms and her father calls in a doctor, who correctly identifies the cause. The unmasking of Carmilla as the vampire Mircalla, Countess Karnstein, and her fate is still gripping despite almost 150 years of Gothic fiction in between.

Le Fanu’s original story has probably not been done many favours by subsequent adaptations on stage or screen, which tend to emphasise the lesbian nature of the main protagonists’ relationship to the detriment of plot and characterisation. Anyone turning to the book for the first time after watching a film version may be disappointed at the lack of explicit sex scenes, lesbian or otherwise, as, in keeping with the rest of the story, Le Fanu implies more than he tells about this aspect of Laura and Carmilla’s relationship.

The most enduring adaptation is the 1970 film The Vampire Lovers, made by Hammer Film Productions. The studio made its name by remaking horror classics like Count Dracula, the Mummy and the Werewolf. Although remarkably popular, they were not noted for their subtlety and exploited to the full the gory potential of their subject-matter. Among these The Vampire Lovers stands out as a low-key drama, with more naked flesh than blood on view, which, like the original, has a claustrophobic setting. Although not well received critically, it was popular at the box office and spawned two sequels (Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil) to make up the socalled Karnstein Trilogy.

Directed by Ray Ward Baker, it starred Peter Cushing, a Hammer regular, with Madeline Smith as Emma (changed from Laura) and Ingrid Pitt as Carmilla. While Smith went on to make a name for herself in comic roles on television, The Vampire Lovers endowed Pitt with cult status and established her as Queen of the Vampires for the rest of her film career.

It would be more accurate to say that the film was inspired by the book rather than based on it. The plot is cut down, characters are changed and a more melodramatic ending is added. The understated eroticism of Le Fanu’s original becomes full-on nudity and more in the film version. Indeed, it is this that ensured its commercial success and its cult status. At the time The Vampire Lovers (with its sequels) was considered daring, and there were some problems with the British censor. Today, however, it may appear tame in comparison to what came after. On viewing it again, while recognising its good qualities, I found it difficult to take it seriously. ■

Tony Canavan

Archive: Behind the Screen First Published in Books Ireland September/October 2016 (issue no. 369)


To learn more about Irish Gothic Literature and Film, join us on Friday October 27th, 5pm in the Liverpool Irish Centre where Tony will be giving a talk on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, followed by a film screening of Dracula. https://www.booksirelandmagazine.com/read-books-ireland-liverpool-october-27th/

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