Saturday, January 30, 2010

Carmillas: "Nightmare Classics" (Review)

Spoilers Ahoy!

Second in my series of reviewing adaptations of the Joseph Sheridan LeFanu vampire classic Carmilla. A word of explanation--my goal remains to only review actual adaptations of the original. Movies or shows that simply use the names "Carmilla" or "Karnstein" do not count. Not for my purposes, anyway.

This time, 1989's edition of Nightmare Classics transporting the characters to the American antebellum South. Yet again Laura is given a name change, this time to Marie for some reason (played by Ione Skye) with Meg Tilly as the title character. A Van Helsing-stand-in named Inspector Amos is included but sans any personal stake in tales of vampires--quite unlike Baron Hartog of The Vampire Lovers or Baron Vordenburg of the novella. Rather Roddy McDowell's character is there to (rather surprisingly) piece together clues about what is going on with some explained deaths--including one from a swarm of bats!

One problem with adapting LeFanu's tale is the lack of obvious conflict involving our narrator/main character. In this one, tension between Marie and her father (Roy Dotrice) fills the void, at least partially from the fact Marie's mother deserted them both. Relations between them are chilly at best, with the girl's loneliness like vinegar on an old but unhealed wound. All too eagerly she leaps at the chance to have a friend, a real friend, and if that friend turns out to be a creature from beyond the grave--well, what of it? One of the most effective sequences in this version is when the two girls play in the night, Carmilla revealing some of her powers to a delighted Marie. Meanwhile Inspector Amos tells Marie's father about the supernatural danger threatening this house and home. Which brings us to arguably the most startling and famous image of this version--Carmilla literally floating in the air as she feeds upon a willing Marie.

As far as I know, this Carmilla is one of only two adaptations to end with the strong hint that the vampire hunters are too late, that while Carmilla herself is destroyed the titular heroine of the story has taken her place among the undead. Indeed, that is one of my favorite "bits" from this version. And honestly, both Skye and Tilly measure up to Doctrice in the acting department (the same cannot quite be said of McDowell, but he isn't bad by any means). Watching this film, one understands Marie's interest in her strange friend, while the interplay between father and daughter feels essentially real.

But the story just does not flow well at all. It feels rushed, and ultimately some of it seems stapled together rather than arising from the action. Odd details pop up, such as the notion that Carmilla was the one who took Marie's mother away, but nothing is really made of this. Nor does it make that much sense. I mean, if there was a whole tomb full of vampires wouldn't a whole lot more deaths be going on? And what about Marie's mother? What was she doing in that tomb? Not to mention (well, actually to mention it) exactly what Carmilla's plan at the end seemed to be.

I also have a pet peeve in vampire stories--namely, that piercing the heart should simply not be easy. That's why we have rib cages, after all.

Still, in this one the narrator was not some gormless little girl. She was a young woman with personality (albeit one nothing like Laura of the novella). And it is reassuring to see no obvious young male suitor--which in turn gives a tiny hint of (at least emotional) incest regarding her father. Juicy stuff! The stuff, to coin a phrase, of nightmares (hence the title). But it doesn't really come together. Methinks one reason is length. At a mere 51 minutes how can one do justice to this story? Especially while cramming it with gore and violence for no good reason?

Not an unworthy effort, but on the other hand not quite a successful one either.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this -- I like Ione Skye (whatever happened to her?) and Meg Tilly. I love the story of Carmilla, and I think I'm going to have to track down a copy to re-read. When are they coming out with the new Carmilla version? I hope they do the story justice...

Zahir Blue said...

From the trailer (made to help raise money) it looks like a somewhat schlocky version, fun but without the real "feel" of the work. On the other hand, a swashbuckling female vampire fighting her hunters with rapiers? Gotta go with that!

Ceres said...

I've been enarmoured with Le Fanu's story for some time. After my first reading I was feeling slightly giddy and quickly confirmed on google if other people had noticed what I was reading into the text, or if that was just me. Regardless of that though, it's a wonderful story and it really compels you to analyze it. I guess for many more popular stories it is easy to find discussion of it to read or participate in, and that could help to make your thoughts on it more definite. I'm not really able to do so with Carmilla though, it's hard to get a grip on, and that's not entirely because of the lack of available discussion, I think, also because thanks to the story's construction and content many aspects of Carmilla's (the title character in this case) existence are left open and are up to the viewer to fill in. I don't think that this is a mistake by the writer, to me the ambiguity of Carmilla seems intentional, and I wonder what it signifies.

In any case, to keep to the topic, I found this blog - which is interesting I guess - when trying to find discussion of the 1989 adaption that is what this post is about. I had watched some other adaptions a year ago or so, and after rereading the story a few days ago I was motivated, and managed to, track this version down. You're right that it's a confusing movie, it doesn't flow and is incoherent. I'm not aware of the general quality of the Nightmare Classics series, so I don't know if this movie is typical for it. I guess so, though; it has a sort of obvious made-for-tv style where the plot is rushed and there are just a few scenes to develop the connection between Marie and Carmilla, just enough to properly set up a part later on where she has to choose between Carmilla and her father. None of the events made me really care for the characters though, they seem in some ways as rushed as the story itself, and they never seem to be able to make too much sense of the confusing world in which they live, of which important details are never explored or investigated.

I might comment on some of the other reviews you have written, though I don't know if you'll be alerted to comments on archived posts such as these, so I'll see.

Zahir Blue said...

Ceres, I am more than pleased to read of your interest in this (to me) under-valued classic. Please feel free to comment further!

Generic Viagra said...

I feel so scared with this because reminded me I have a lot of nightmares.