Carmilla, the lauded lesbian vampire web series, arrived with a bang on YouTube in 2014. Now a cult favourite, the-little-web-show-that-could catapulted its talented cast into revered status among queerdom.
The conceit, however, was limited. Revolving around college student, Laura, and her webcam, the action sequences often fell flat and the narrative choices flew in the face of logic, sometimes giving the production the feel of an extended stageplay.
On the back of millions of views and a crowdfunding campaign, Carmilla has graduated into a fully fledged 90-minute movie.
So how does it fare?
Five years on from the events of the web series and Carmilla (Natasha Negovanlis) and Laura (Elise Bauman) are in relative domestic bliss. Laura is a struggling journo while Carmilla is content to linger in the very-human limbo of her mid-twenties, her nihilism firmly intact.
The pairs’ initial domesticity is interrupted when Laura starts dreaming of Victorian houses and Carmilla exhibits vampire behaviour: biting Laura on the neck during a moment of passion and later happily slurping blood from an animal carcass.
Hollstein contact Perry (Annie Briggs) and LaFontaine (Kaitlyn Alexander), now a thriving if unhappy pair of paranormal investigators. In typical sardonic fashion, LaFontaine quickly determines that Carmilla’s human spark is fading.
The gang hightail it to Carmilla’s past and come face-to-face with a cabal of women Carmilla tricked into becoming angler-fish bait. Carmilla’s humanity is literally at stake because of the manifestation of her conscience – or the human victims she lured to their deaths.
Spearheading the manifestations is Carmilla’s tragic first love, Elle (Dominique Provost-Chalkey). Mythical shenanigans ensue.
A talented cast
In its source material (a 19th century novel from Sheridan Le Fanu), Carmilla is a sinister vampire who uses her mystique to seduce a virginal woman. In the web series (and film), Carmilla is a sinister vampire who uses her mystique to seduce a virginal woman.
However, the web series gave us a gentler and altogether more interesting Carmilla. Played with mysticism and heart by rising star Negovanlis, the eponymous Carmilla is at once a snarky asshole and a vulnerable victim. The denouement of the web series saw Carmilla become a human – a curious proposition for a web series about a vampire.
In one of the film’s funniest moments, a quick sequence of cuts parallels human-Carmilla and new-vampire-Carmilla.
If this review seems rather Carmilla-heavy, it’s because she’s the most interesting part of the film. In turns stricken with guilt or hilarious, Negovanlis has the difficult task of balancing gentle comedy and the malaise of her character’s past.
The multi-cam setup is kind to Negovanlis and the cast at large: characters are free to emote away from the constraints of a webcam and they all rise admirably to the task – though Briggs and Alexander are wasted with a parboiled romantic subplot that never really goes anywhere. Negovanlis and Bauman are excellent while Nicole Stamp as grouchy Mel steals many of her scenes.
Wynonna Earp veteran, Dominique Provost-Chalkey is suitably and expectedly great though her Elle is a cipher more than a fully fleshed out character.
Rounding out the core group of strong performances are newcomers, Cara Gee and Grace Lynn Kung, as Emily and Charlotte Brontë respectively.
Queer romance at its best
(That gifset tho.)
Carmilla arrived at the turning-point of queer representation. On the back of the ‘bury your gays’ trope and an entirely misfortunate Trump presidency, writers and producers are creating increasingly visible queer stories.
Queer women matter – and Carmilla is the absolute, pitting Laura and Carm’s relationship at the centre. They fight; they fuck; they’re adorable. 40 minutes in and the film lets loose with a showcase sex scene. While your earnest reviewer felt like a voyeur (I’ve followed the cast for years on social media; it was akin to watching friends), the sex scene was passionate and raw – and sacrosant of its representation of queer sex.
Most importantly, it was free of the male gaze and any potential for perviness.
Towards the end of the film (GINORMOUS SPOILER ALERT), Carmilla sacrifices her human life in a fitting act of redemption to release the souls trapped in the hell-house of her figurative and actual past. It’s a morally ambigious moment: how, Laura wonders, can they have a future if Carmilla doesn’t age?
Laura sees grandchildren and the comforts of aging. Carmilla sees it too: in one of the film’s strongest scenes, our two leads go toe-to-toe to argue the meaning of their future.
However, once Carmilla becomes a vampire again, the film swiftly moves towards a tidy epilogue with little repercussion or discussion of the reality of the situation. It’s a misstep, and a large one, though likely a thread that will be picked up in a possible sequel.
Carmilla and Laura are the heart of the franchise – and as a hardcore shipper, I spent a solid portion of the film in fanned-out bliss. They bicker. They banter. They’re treated with an equilibrium and respect that traditional media fails to match.
However, it’s all a little too easy. Carmilla’s morality (and Laura’s by proxy) should be the base theme of the film. Instead, their fate is foregone. Where a roomful of women dancing in full Victorian gear is a joyful piece of queer film-making, it’s let down by a lack of follow-through.
Laura and Carmilla have a five-minute fight about their fates and Carmilla’s history – but it’s glossed over too quickly. Negovanlis and Bauman are talented actresses and the potential to burrow into the depths of Carmilla’s twisted morality (and mortality) are there, though they’re never fully fleshed out.
Carmilla is vulnerable and angsty. Laura is mostly supportive. An extra 10 minutes on the run-time could have helped enormously with the tension of a foregone conclusion. The ending is rushed and feels unearned – Laura and Mel look into middle distance and muse about loving dead girls while the gang sip beer and relax.
(Dear reader, I’m so gay.)
The Carmilla movie plays like a great first draft. It’s carried by the charm and talent of an excellent cast, with enough warmth, wit, and angst to cement its place as a fan favourite.
It’s squarely targeted at its existing audience: viewers who have never seen the web series will be at a loss for characterisation and sense.
However, Carmilla remains as important as ever as a cornerstone in queer content. It’s a labour of love by queer filmmakers, starring queer actors, and aimed at queer viewers. It’s charming and sexy and joyful – a celebration of two ladies and their love.
The storyline is never as good as you want it to be and while it’s fun, it lacks any real stakes with a disappointingly rushed ending. Carmilla: The Movie was never going to be high art. The web series wasn’t either, with a particularly shaky third season.
Carmilla is, and always has been, a celebration of queerness. The film, while lacking in parts, is a solid romp (pun intended) with enough humour and heart to satisfy its core audience.
Ellens out of five: