The Vampire Lovers, Hammer Films 1970 lesbian vampire
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Carmilla: the undying allure of the first lesbian vampire story

The original goth girl has inspired a whole genre of fiction.

The second most popular vampire tale no doubt is Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu, published in 1872. This story of a lesbian vampire actually predates Bram Stoker’s more famous novel Dracula by over a quarter century. Arguably it is the more important work of fiction in the genre even though Dracula is far better known.

Carmilla sets the tone for the gothic literature that would follow, with a paranormal investigator, creepy castle, and dark sexual overtones. It introduced the concept of the female vampire as a seductress, equating carnal desire with unspeakable evil. The sexual aspects were a bit veiled in the story, but the veil is incredibly thin.

The imagery and mood have inspired not only other fiction but also our own cards,  The Bohemian Gothic Tarot. The image of the enigmatic woman holding two “Bleeding Heart” flowers in her teeth on the Queen of Swords is inspired by Carmilla. Several other cards, including The Lovers, The King of Cups and The Four of Cups also depict vampires – in the case of the Four of Cups it is a world-weary female who may well be a bride of Dracula. Ominous details of once-mighty castles appear throughout the deck.

The plot of the Carmilla novella is set in Styria, a region of present-day Austria in a fictional castle called Karnstein. The family that owns the castle originates from Moravia, a part of what is now the Czech Republic that in real life experienced a vampire panic at the end of the 1600s and start of the 1700s.

Illustration for Carmilla, the lesbian vampire
Illustration by D. H. Friston for The Dark Blue magazine

While the castle is in Austria, the name is just one letter off from Karlstein – the German spelling of Karlštejn, a massive gothic castle near Prague. Other castles such as Styria’s Riegersburg Castle have been suggested as the inspiration as well.

Sheridan Le Fanu – actually the pen name of Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu – seems not to have traveled to the mentioned locations. He invented the spooky ambiance out of whole cloth based on travel books he read. The author seldom ventured very far from Dublin, Ireland, the city where he was born in 1814 and passed away in 1873. Stoker was also born Ireland and seems to have never visited Transylvania, the main setting for Dracula.

calmet prague bohemia tarot
Sheridan Le Fanu in lesbian vampire bohemian gothic tarot
Sheridan Le Fanu in 1873

The vampire lore also comes from secondary sources, most notably Treatise on the Apparitions of Spirits and on Vampires or Revenants of Hungary, Moravia, et al., which was written by a Benedictine monk named Antoine Augustin Calmet. It was published in various editions under several different titles starting in 1746. We have explored that book as it relates to Bohemia and Moravia in a previous post. Several plot points in Carmilla come directly from tales that Calmet compiled. 

Bram Stoker took some inspiration from the same source, and both books had a big influence on future vampire fiction. One could make a broad pun about these modern authors cannibalizing these original sources and even sucking their very existence from them. In any case, the long shadow cast by Sheridan Le Fanu and Stoker refuses to die. The ranks of the undead, at least in fiction, continue to expand exponentially.

Sheridan Le Fanu’s book also sparked a whole genre of films, often with only a tangential connection to the original work. Fans of Dracula will be familiar with the idea, as many Dracula properties use the name and little or nothing else.

Carmilla appeared as one of five novellas published in In a Glass Darkly, a few years after it appeared as a serial in a magazine called The Dark Blue.

The first film adaptation was Vampyr: The Dream of Allan Gray, a 1932 German-French film directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer. He credits all of In a Glass Darkly as the source, and truth be told the connection is a bit marginal. Dreyer’s film is more of a visual poem on death and the afterlife than a vampire film as we now know them. For decades, only poor-quality copies circulated but it has recently been restored.

The next major attempt was Blood and Roses, a 1960 French-Italian co-production directed by Roger Vadim, who would later be famous for the racy sci-fi flick Barbarella. His version updates the action to contemporary Italy. Reality and fantasy blend together, and it is hard to determine what is real and what is just a product of the increasingly disturbed Carmilla’s mind. 

This  is the first of the wave of erotic Euro horror films that would run well into the 1970s.  The uncut version with all the dream sequences intact is unfortunately very hard to find.

The best adaptations came from Britain’s Hammer Films. Three films, collectively known as the Karnstein Trilogy, all heavily advertised their racy and exotic content. At the time, depictions of same-sex relationships were still taboo. But horror films set in bygone eras  always flapped their bat wings under the radar of the morality police. 

Hammer actually argued that the lesbian aspects had literary merit, based on the original story, so the British censors mostly backed down rather than be seen as prudes.

The first of the trilogy is the best. The Vampire Lovers came out in 1970 and was shocking not only for its horror scenes but for its racy overtones and brief snatches of partial nudity. Polish-born actress Ingrid Pitt played Mircalla, an anagram from Carmilla.

Two others came out in 1971, and made loose references to some of the characters and settings of the novella. Lust for a Vampire is a sequel set 40 years after the original, with some action taking place at an all-girls school. This time, Danish actress Yutte Stensgaard played Mircalla.

Twins of Evil is a prequel to the first film, and what we would now call an origin story. This was popular due to a pair of Playboy models from the October 1970 issue. The real-life twins Maltese-born Mary and Madeleine Collinson appear in the film as free-spirited orphans from Venice who fall afoul of Satanic goings-on in Karnstein Castle. British-born Katya Wyeth pops up briefly as Mircalla this time.

Hammer Films, despite their horror trappings, always aspired to as much quality as the studio could afford. Peter Cushing, one of the finest actors of his generation, appears in two of the films. This trilogy ranks among the studios finest efforts.

In the past decade, tales of Carmilla have had a bit of a resurgence. This is no doubt thanks to the general vampire craze that includes everything from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the Twilight books and films.

One overlooked entry is a 2014 film called Styria, also released as The Curse of Styria and  Angels of Darkness. It resets the story to Hungary in 1989, behind the collapsing  Iron Curtain. Styria has never been part of Hungary or under communist rule, but it is a minor point. The milieu gives the film a Kafkaesque feel. This version delves into the psychological aspects, as Stephen Rea (of Crying Game fame) is an art historian trying to salvage some decaying murals at an abandoned spa with his mentally troubled daughter in tow.

The daughter encounters another young woman who survived a car crash in the woods, similar to the carriage accident in the original story. Eventually, their relationship starts to affect the other young women in the nearby town. A twist in this telling is the link between self-harm and becoming a vampire. This slow and contemplative art-horror film never found a big audience.

A British costume drama called Carmilla fell victim to the pandemic. Writer and director Emily Harris eschews the supernatural aspects. Instead, she delves deeply into the psychological repression of a teen girl named Lara living on an estate in the care of a strict governess.

When the worldly young Carmilla turns up after a carriage accident, life at the estate is turned upside down. The governess equates the openly affectionate relationship between the two girls as some sort of demonic evil. her efforts to protect Lara from this perceived evil have dire consequences.

The film was screened at a Scottish festival in 2019, but its theatrical release was delayed by the pandemic. It eventually came out without much fanfare in 2020. It is worth seeking out online as a fine example of a modern feminist spin on sexuality in the gothic costume drama.

A lot of other films use the name Carmilla without much connection to the original story. A 2014–16 web series and 2017 film called The Carmilla Movie was made in Canada. It emphasizes strong female and non-binary characters in a modern setting. 

Carmilla also turns up as a character in The Japanese Castlevania amine series and in the Vampire Hunter D video game. 

Main image: Ingrid Pitt and  Madeline Smith in The Vampire Lovers. Copyright Hammer Films, 1970.

An article by BabaBarock with Raymond Johnston. Copyright BabaBarock Ltd, all rights reserved. Please contact us if you would like to syndicate or otherwise use this article.

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