When the web series Carmilla debuted on YouTube in 2014, it’s possible no one expected the legacy it would go on to enjoy. After all, how much mass appeal could an adaptation of a 19th-century gothic horror novel about lesbian vampires actually have — one produced by a tampon company, no less?
Yet thanks largely to its open embrace of queer and genderqueer characters, the series about a morally ambiguous lesbian vampire and her evil-slaying girlfriend quickly found a loyal cult following and continued for three seasons and more than 100 episodes. And now, Carmilla has done something fairly unusual for a web series: It’s spawned a feature film adaptation.
Piggybacking off the success of previous literary web series like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and The Autobiography of Jane Eyre, Carmilla is based on an 1872 gothic novel by the writer J. Sheridan Le Fanu, which itself was a curiosity: It was one of the world’s first vampire novels, preceding Bram Stoker’s Dracula by 25 years — and it was incredibly gay. In Le Fanu’s Carmilla, the title character is a sinister vampire who uses her air of innocent beauty to get close to the virginal women whose beds she
But the 2014 web series, penned by Canadian writer Jordan Hall, placed a considerably gentler Carmilla, now about 330 years old, in a modern-day dorm room on a highly unusual college campus, where supernatural occurrences were the norm and no one blinked an eye when female students randomly went missing — no one, that is, except Carmilla’s plucky roommate Laura. Over the course of the series, Laura and Carmilla gradually moved from their initial suspicion of one another to trust and then, finally, to falling in love.
The conceit of this modern-day update, which easily could have been pitched along the way as Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, soon attracted a thriving cult fandom. Many viewers were particularly entranced by the feisty, often melodramatic pairing of the titular Carmilla Karnstein (Natasha Negovanlis) and her roommate turned lover Laura Hollis (Elise Bauman) — the couple was even dubbed Hollstein by their most devoted fans.
Carmilla arrived at a moment when geek culture and fandom communities were reckoning with an increasing demand for broader forms of representation in media and pop culture. Queer fans and supporters showered love upon the series, which seemed committed to depicting queer relationships and female friendships in a routinely positive and empowered way. Featuring a number of queer characters as well as one nonbinary character, Carmilla was targeted firmly at modern, socially progressive online fandom communities, and those fans not only came out in droves but have continued to support it ever since. To wit, The Carmilla Movie was largely crowdfunded by fans preordering the film, and a young adult novel adapting the web series is slated to arrive in 2019.
The Carmilla Movie, which enjoyed a one-night theatrical run in Canada on October 26, is now available for digital download. But ironically, the same fandom emphasis on progressive representation that gave Carmilla its cult following may be playing a part in preventing Carmilla from breaking out and gaining more mass appeal. Because while the movie is ostensibly suitable for a general audience of people new to the storyline, it really needs to be seen and enjoyed as a fan first and foremost. In fact, it might be difficult to enjoy it as anything else.
The new movie is squarely aimed at existing fans — which means lots of gloriously queer fan service
By the end of three seasons on YouTube, the Carmilla web series had pretty well resolved most of its plot lines, granting Carmilla a human soul that would allow her to spend a full life growing old together with Laura. The movie, set five years after the season three finale, does find the two women questioning what that life looks like — but remains decidedly against upsetting the status quo that the web series took such pains to establish. The result is lots and lots of queer female romance, aimed at providing fans with more of what they clearly want. (For context, one supercut of all the Hollstein kisses over the course of the series’ 100-plus episodes has 5 million views on YouTube, several times more than any single episode of the show itself.)
So even though The Carmilla Movie [occasionally] delves into ideas of redemption and forgiveness, returning to Carmilla’s sinister past and forcing her to confront the ghosts of her previous victims, it’s largely built around Laura and Carmilla being adorable, fighting for each other, worrying over each other, protecting each other, loving each other. The film also takes a “gang’s all here” approach to its ensemble, uniting most of the cast of the web series along with an all-female roster of ghosts for a fun, spooky romp in a haunted Austrian mansion. This premise serves as the central plot conceit, ostensibly for the purpose of allowing Carmilla to make peace with her past but really so that The Carmilla Movie can put its heroines in corsets and stage elaborate Victorian set pieces — think less Dracula, more DeviantArt photo shoot.
The route from happy domestic life to European paranormal shenanigans involves something of a callback to the themes of the web series’ first season, when Carmilla had to more directly confront her morally ambiguous past. The film begins with Carmilla realizing that the spark keeping her humanity intact is being threatened by manifestations of her guilty conscience: a handful of the victims she lured to their deaths a few centuries ago, whose ghosts have now become trapped in the mortal world and are fighting to move on. While most of the ghosts are welcoming, one of them is Carmilla’s tragic first love, Elle (Wynonna Earp’s Dominique Provost-Chalkley), who yearns for the human life she never got to have — a life not unlike the one Carmilla is currently leading.
Treated more seriously, this conflict could be the compelling heart of the film. But The Carmilla Movie isn’t really interested in exploring any residual connection or conflict between Carmilla and her long-lost love, or in seriously challenging the happiness of its OTP. There are nontraditional relationships aplenty to go around; the film’s showiest set piece takes place at a Victorian-style ball with a roomful of women dancing together. The only bro in sight just wants to hang out and support his friends. The top priority is to tell a love story in a narrowly contained and charming universe where lesbians run the world.
If nothing else, The Carmilla Movie will satisfy those looking for a happy, charming gay romance
If you aren’t already in love with Carmilla as a property, The Carmilla Movie probably won’t do much for you. The film briefly walks newcomers through the plot basics but spends less time explaining the characters and their relationships. Carmilla the web series always fought — usually admirably — against the inevitable clunkiness of its existence as one of many recent single-camera web series where the actors are tied to the conceit that their characters are constantly talking into a webcam. The Carmilla Movie trades some of that web-inflicted awkwardness for other more film-specific kinds, notably a small effects budget. And writer Alejandro Alcoba’s screenplay often feels like a hasty first draft, with plot ideas and the occasional Hollstein kiss thrown in as placeholders for some later revision that never arrived.
But then again, if you aren’t here for a long-awaited reunion with Carmilla’s beloved characters, you’re probably not watching The Carmilla Movie. The film relies on the considerable amount of character development the web series nurtured throughout its run, and it’s more than willing to fall back on its tried-and-true fan bait of letting Carmilla be vulnerable and angsty while regretting her checkered past, as Laura looks on lovingly and says spunky things about never giving up.
Indeed, the romantic element of Hollstein is so strong that it overshadows most of what else is happening onscreen, and tends to crowd out the other members of the ensemble despite their best efforts. Carmilla’s two most interesting characters, LaFontaine (Kaitlyn Alexander) and Perry (Annie Briggs), are especially underused, and their relationship is left as frustratingly weird and ill-defined as it ever was. Meanwhile, Callis (Nicole Stamp) doesn’t have much to do besides brandish a crossbow — but she does get to make out with a ghost (Grace Lynn Kung), so what else matters, really?
The Carmilla Movie, as well as the web series before it, seems to be part of a steady trend of emerging fandom-driven queer narratives: stories like Check, Please!, Yuri On Ice, and Dream Daddy, in which the emphasis is primarily placed on creating happy queer characters who exist in positive spaces and who are allowed to be happy at all costs. And many critics might argue that within such narratives, the idea of an idyllic queer safety net often circumvents the work of building meaningful, substantive characterizations, relationships, conflicts, and storylines.
As someone who wants queer narratives to feature happy romantic relationships and be charming and have serious characterizations with meaningfully substantive development and plots, I can’t help but find it disappointing whenever those first two traits — queer people getting to be both happy and charming — are allowed to stand in for all of the others. Carmilla has always been better than most about allowing its relationships and narrative themes to build steadily and gain meaning over time, but it, too, has taken shortcuts to arrive at its queer happy places. And although The Carmilla Movie feels like a huge lovefest, a celebration of queer narrative spaces and empowered queer women and the fan communities that support both, it’s also rarely been clearer that simply having queer characters onscreen isn’t a substitute for the traditional elements of good storytelling.
With all that said, given the onslaught of real-world violence and threats to queer identity that LGBTQ people are facing in 2017, it’s absolutely okay if you want nothing more than to spend a couple of hours watching two beautiful women be happy together in a simple, sweet love story. If what you want from The Carmilla Movie is a lot of cuddling and a little corset ripping, rest assured that it will deliver.