Saturday, February 6, 2010

Carmillas: "Crypt of the Vampire" (Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

In 1963 the movie Crypt of the Vampire got made, the first real attempt (as far as I've been able to learn) to capture on film Joseph Sheridan LeFanu's classic novella Carmilla. Yes, I know there was Vampyr which was supposed to be inspired by LeFanu, but while an extremely fine movie one wonders how anyone could call it an adaptation. Not one character from the original makes an appearance, nor particularly any incident. So this joint Italian-Spanish production counts as the first.

How is it? Well, a mixed bag overall. Despite the DVD cover, the entire film in fact is black and white, used to generally good effect. The castle itself turns out to be an odd blend of shadow and stark open spaces. Certainly the dream sequences work without resorting to special effects, just atmosphere and acting. Many shots are quite beautiful.

Christopher Lee portrays Count Ludwig Karnstein, concerned over his daughter Laura (right name for once) who has terrible nightmares and who may resemble a vampire witch from generations past. A curse involving Carmilla's vengeance seems to be working its way through the current Karnstein family, killing young women. Laura herself fears she may be responsible--an interesting notion explored as well as possible given the near-total lack of personality she otherwise demonstrates. Count Ludwig hires an historian (the seemingly obligatory young male love interest) to investigate. A carriage accident results in a sweet young woman named Lubya staying at the castle. Readers of the original will no doubt realize she is in fact Carmilla, but the film actually makes one doubt it. No small feat. Added to this mix is a deeply superstitious housekeeper, an old mountebank (a character usually erased in the adaptation), plus a maid who is also the Count's mistress.

Visually, the whole thing works, even when it is being just a tad ridiculous. The heraldry afficiodo in me recoils at a coat of arms that consists of a stylized letter "K" for example. The women's hair is non-period, but that is hardly surprising. Even period films with many times the budget of this one often get that detail wrong. The lead actress is lusciously beautiful but almost startlingly susceptible to suggestion. Frankly she seems rather a ninny of the first order. Someone suggests she looks like the long-dead Carmilla, and she believes it (in fact they look nothing alike). The hint of guilt is enough to provoke all kinds of nightmares (quite effective to behold). And the mysterious Lubya winds the girl round her little finger with seemingly no effort.

Lee gives his typical good performance. Parenthetically, let me bemoan this man's career rarely allowed him to show the full acting chops of which he was in fact capable. Take a look at him in Lord of the Rings, in the original The Wicker Man and in the biopic Jinnah to see what I mean. He's the only memorable performer in this film, although to be fair everyone else does a workmanlike job.

The reason for the title eventually gets explained, with an idea that actually has some interest to it. Seems while she's wandering around killing girls Carmilla is also asleep in her crypt, vulnerable to destruction. Among other things this allows us the suspense of Lubya threatening Laura up until the last moment.

But at its heart the central character is no longer an expatriate English girl living by herself amid haunted woods. She's a vapid ingenue aristocrat who needs a man to protect her. The story has nothing really of the English or the German about it, feeling Italian more than anything else (understandably enough). This even extends to the look of the castle--a stark, practical exterior baking in the sun, contrasted with lush furnishings amid black-as-midnight shadows within. The heroine's father is not elderly nor does he discount the supernatural.

I've seen worse adaptations (the first version of Moby Dick springs to mind). The movie has some charm. But at heart it is almost totally its own story rather than a genuine attempt to adapt LeFanu's famous tale.

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