In my story “Fountains of Blood” that appears in the anthology Straight Outta Tombstone, the vampire Marcella hands the protagonist, Billy, a copy of J. Sheridan LeFanu’s 1872 novella Carmilla to help him understand what vampires are. I used Carmilla partly because the story my story is centered around the 1896 Albert Fountain disappearance and Dracula was still a year away from publication. I also chose it because I thought this story of a female vampire would resonate well with my vampire character, Marcella.
Because Carmilla predates Dracula, it does not contain many of the tropes we often associate with vampires. Like many vampires of folklore, Carmilla has ghost-like qualities. She can move through locked doors and haunt people’s dreams. If she’s bothered by religious iconography, LeFanu doesn’t say. I have wondered if any good films were made of LeFanu’s story and I recently discovered that Hammer Studios produced one in 1970 under the title The Vampire Lovers. Just to note, the poster reproduced on the Blu-Ray case does not reflect the film’s content. We never see a hapless male victim chained up and being ravaged by a horde of female vampires.
Overall, the film is remarkably faithful to LeFanu’s novella. The story is more linear. The novella opens when a carriage topples. The passengers prove to be Carmilla and her mother. The mother pleads with an English gentleman to allow Carmilla to rest and recover while she continues her journey. The gentleman agrees and Carmilla enters his home where she seduces the gentleman’s daughter, Laura. Over time, Laura begins to succumb to a mysterious illness. Later, we learn that a similar incident happened in the home of General Spielsdorf when Carmilla, then calling herself Millarca, seduces his ward Bertha. Over time, Bertha grows pale and weak and eventually dies. In the movie, we see the incident in General Spielsdorf’s house first followed by the second incident. For some reason, the filmmakers named General Spielsdorf’s ward Laura and gave the second young lady the name Emma.
That noted, there are more than a couple of superficial changes. For some reason, we get a lot more men in the filmed version. There’s a male vampire overseeing the Countess and Carmilla. There’s a love interest for Emma who comes riding to the rescue at the end, although he doesn’t seem to do much else in the film. The characters of Madame Perrodon and Mademoiselle De LeFontaine from the novella are combined into the character of “Mademoiselle Perrodon” and a male butler is introduced. What’s more, at the ending of the Victorian novella, Laura, Madame Perrodone and Mademoiselle De LeFontaine are all out hunting the vampire with General Spielsdorf and Laura’s father. In the movie, Emma is wasting away at home while the men are out hunting.
Carmilla is very much a story of a female vampire seducing young women and it feels like the filmmakers in 1970 were trying to imply that the victims needed real men to both defend them and show them how much better love would be with a man. It’s interesting to see that the Victorian author didn’t do this, though LeFanu often nods and winks to his audience telling us how scandalous the women’s behavior is.
If you’re as fascinated by vampire stories as I am, you definitely should not miss Carmilla. It’s a short read and available for free at Project Gutenberg. The movie is also worth a watch and features notable performances by Ingrid Pitt as Carmilla, Peter Cushing as General Spielsdorf, and Kate O’Mara as Mademoiselle Perrodon. Be aware this is the era when Hammer started undressing its female leads at any opportunity, so if that offends, you might want to skip this film. If you want to know more about my vampires and the history of Marcella, be sure to read Vampires of the Scarlet Order. You can find more details and the first chapter at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/VSO.html.