Saturday 24 March 2018

The Carmilla Movie (Canada 2017: Dir Spencer Maybee)

So if you're over 40 the chances are you may never have heard of Carmilla, the insanely popular Canadian web based show which at the time of writing has clocked up 70 million plus views on YouTube, with a massively loyal fanbase. The series, which ran for three seasons from 2014, was created by Jordan Hall, Steph Ouaknine and Jay Bennett, and is another version of the much adapted Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu novella of the same name, featuring a centuries old vampire turning up in in a contemporary high school.

Picking up on the story's lesbian themes (although the author punished his heroine in the novella by having her beheaded for her Sapphic tendencies) Carmilla's strength is in its normalisation of gay characters and its female fronted cast being funny, strong and there for each other - this is a show which doesn't so much observe the Bechdel test rules as screwing them up into a ball and kicking them into the nearest waste paper basket.

Carmilla the web show introduced us to perennially perky Laura Hollis (Elise Bauman), a journalism student whose dorm buddy disappears and is replaced by dark and mysterious Carmilla Karnstein (Natasha Negovanlis), Laura's TA Danny Lawrence (Sharon Belle), and friends LaFontaine (Kaitlyn Alexander) and Perry (Annie M. Briggs). It's the interplay between these characters, and particularly the developing romantic relationship between Laura and vampire with a heart of gold Carmilla that really made the show consistently watchable, overcoming its major visual hurdle of being set pretty much in one room for all the episodes.

The show's themes of friendship, loyalty and courage in supernatural situations will of course bring to mind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which covered the same ground in its seven seasons between 1997 and 2003. But of course most of Carmilla's viewers were either babies or a gleam in their parents' eyes during Buffy's heyday, and it's absolutely right that they would want their own version. But Carmilla is more than Buffy on-a-budget. The female cast, producers and writers have locked into something very much 'now' - at the screening of the movie I attended (and yes, I'll get to the film in a moment) the most important thing for the largely queer audience was simply to show gay characteristations uncoupled from traditional coming out narratives. Laura, Carmilla and the gang have got all that out of the way and are just living their lives. Albeit lives that include rampaging demons, evil faculty members and of course vampires.

So after the decision to end the web shows after the third season, it was a surprise and a delight for fans that Carmilla The Movie was announced. And make no mistake, this is a film for fans. I was quite privileged to see it on the big screen as, while I liked it, its commercial draw for those who are not already fans of the show ('Creampuffs' as they are known) may be limited and it seems likely to find its distribution options via streaming than the cinema.

The film opens five years after the events at the end of season 3. Carmilla has been transformed from vampire to human, and she and Laura are living a life of near normalcy and very much in love. Except that Laura keeps having troubling Hammer horror style dreams in which Carmilla is still a vampire, and a mysterious woman called Elle skulks around in the background. Turns out that Elle is Carmilla's ex and she's a whole heap of trouble, so the new Scooby gang must travel back to Carmilla's home country to face the evil.

Oddly, although the film opens up the rather restrictive single point camera approach of the web series, the talk straight to screen approach of the show has been retained. This keeps the intimate, confessional feel that regular viewers have valued but for a new audience, unaware of the show's history, it makes the film feel rather stilted. Would viewers get much from Carmilla The Movie if they hadn't seen the web shows? Possibly not. However the cast make the transition from small to large screen well, and the script loses none of the smartness of its web origins. It's good to see the team working well together and enjoying themselves in the gothic set pieces (including a Dance of the Vampires style ballroom scene).

Carmilla The Movie probably isn't for the casual uninformed viewer; although there is some backstory, it's not enough to immerse the uninitiated, and the film's pace may seem a little leisurely for the popcorn crowd. But I loved the movie as a thank you to the fans. And if the scores of young women who queued up just to say thank you to Negovanlis (who was present at the screening I attended and seemed to embody the spirit of the whole enterprise as a smart, funny and upbeat human being) is anything to go by, the movie has already done its work.

There were hints at the screening that the show may be optioned for a more mainstream series, and there's some doubt as to which actors, if any, will be ported across from Carmilla 1.0. Hmmm.

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