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Simon Read [Film Festival 07.02.19] United Kingdom thriller drama vampires

It is better, I suppose, to see someone fail at doing something interesting than to see someone succeed in doing something dull. Carmilla, written and directed by Emily Harris, is a flawed film, but it's a pretty noble failure.

The story, a Gothic horror based on the 1872 novella by Sheridan Le Fanu, concerns a lonely teenage girl named Lara (Hannah Rae), who shares a country estate with her father and her cruel governess, Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine - The Woman in Black). When we are introduced to Lara, she is having her left hand bound behind her back to encourage her to use her right - the left hand being connected to the devil and witchcraft. This is the first sign of just how stifling and restrictive life in her deeply Christian household can be.

An accident on the road nearby brings a mysterious, injured young woman (Devrim Lingnau) into Lara's life. She is stricken with amnesia, so Lara names her Carmilla, and the two become friends. Carmilla's visit brings strange, supernatural happenings - girls in the local town start to die from a plague, while Lara suffers disturbing, morbid visions. Miss Fontaine attempts to separate the girls, but this only brings them closer together. A local doctor, superstitious at his core, believes that Carmilla may be a vampire.

Carmilla is heavy on atmosphere. Scenes illuminated by candlelight, people moving and acting in that awkward, stilted and self-conscious way that we expect of Victorian-era characters, and religious hysteria taking over at the first hint of weirdness. Harris uses frequent cutaways to the various beasties living in the undergrowth - worms and slugs and maggots - while the film's editing and sound design provide occasional jump-scares. For all this window-dressing however, the film generally feels airless, hokey and a little silly.

One of the main issues for me was the character of Miss Fontaine. Played by Raine as a strict authoritarian and devout Christian, she is a crucial part of the story, but we never really buy into her character. Raine seems somewhat uneasy in a role which might have been better suited to an older actress - she does not come across as terribly convincing. Rae and Lingnau are better suited to their roles, but overall performances feel at turns shonky and inert, with the whiff of a made-for-TV drama.

There are some good things happening in Carmilla, but ultimately the film feels stiff and unconvincing. At one point, apropos of nothing, the film suddenly cuts to the image of an old potato lying on the ground, and I quickly wrote 'Old potato' down in my notepad. This, for me, has become the single defining impression of the film - an old potato.

If you're a fan of enigmatic Gothic tales, period costume horrors et al, then you might well enjoy the visual design and romantic vampirism that Carmilla offers, but I'll stick to needlework and prayer.

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