Battle of the Lesbian Vampires: Vampyr vs Carmilla

When you pit a film adaptation against the book by which it is inspired or based, you almost always hear the same three words; “The book’s better.” I swear people who haven’t even read the book, as a knee jerk reaction, make that proclamation! Well, that’s not always the case. Sometimes you’re not even comparing rotten apple to apple. Of course, there is the common predicament of paring down the story to fit a feature length film, or the elimination of scenes that are beyond the film’s FX budget or capability. There are also instances when the director is inspired to create his / her own masterpiece, a work wholly unique to the original source material, even though they are inspired by it. Let the Right One In is a great example. I was so intoxicated by John A. Lindqvist’s dark Swedish novel, also titled Let the Right One In or Let Me In depending on the edition, and obsessed with the chilling and graphically violent tone that initially I didn’t like the film. I eventually came to love the movie as its own little piece of visual art, but that is a battle we can visit another day. Point is, I realized that my love for the book disallowed me from seeing the beauty in its film adaptation and I promised to respect these inspired movies on their own merits and, most importantly, with an open mind. The Dreadful Tales’ “Battle of the…“ series is meant to examine the successes and shortcomings from page to celluloid. In some cases, we may even find that the film version is actually better than the original story.

Today, we cozy up with Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s not-so-subtle lesbian vampire, Gothic novella “Carmilla,” part of his 1872 collection In a Glass Darkly, and conversely, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1932 Vampyr which involves a male traveler caught up in events most uncanny.

In regards to film adaptations, Vampyr is more accurately a film inspired, or what the French film historian Maurice Drouzy called a “pseudoadaptation.” Drouzy goes a step further to say Dreyer was “attaching his own ideas to an innocent third party,” and suggested he owed no real credit to the story. There are significant deviations from Le Fanu’s story, most notably the overt lesbian themes involving our titular vampiress Carmilla and her nubile victim Laura. The beautiful teenager Laura is juxtaposed by Vampyr’s adult male protagonist Allan Gray. And instead of a sly infiltration, he’s the strange visitor pulled into the web of devil worship and bloodlust orchestrated by the village vampire, who is markedly older and devoid of the sexual prowess of Le Fanu’s Carmilla.

The argument has been made that perhaps Dreyer made these specific adjustments in particular to avoid any legal troubles since F.W. Marnau had his own battle with the Bram Stoker estate after his release of Nosferatu (1922). Dreyer scholar, Casper Tybjerg, reveals other striking comparisons between Vampyr and several works of art in his visual essay of the film that prove the director was influenced by more than Le Fanu’s stories. One of my favorite examples Tybjerg uses to make this point is the similarity between Henry Fuseli’s “The Nightmare” and a scene in Vampyr which finds the old lady feeding on young Leone.

Vampyr is utterly frightening, but with Gray as the lead, and the two young daughter victims more secondary to his predicament, all that eroticism of Le Fanu’s racy tale is absent. Gray certainly has more in common with Dr. Martin Heselius, a doctor preoccupied with psychic phenomenon and whose case histories are presented in Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly, rather than the protagonist Laura. In fact, while the isolated castle of Laura and her father is cunningly invaded by Carmilla, it is Allan Gray who stumbles onto this supernatural occurrence through his “aimless wanderings.”

The predator in both stories thrive by the same means; feeding on the blood of children or young adults. In either case, they take hold of the innocent, young victim, eventually infecting the whole family like a plague. Neither isolation nor ignorance from the supernatural, locked doors or protection by guards can keep out the monster once they have their sight set on entering. And keeping with vampire tradition, they are invulnerable at night and both are defeated with a stake through the heart.

In the case of “Carmilla,” a statement is made early on regarding the Governess’ immediate distrust and suspicion of “ugly, hand-dog looking fellows,” while they have an unquestioning acceptance of the beautiful, dewy-eyed Camrilla. Conversely, the monster preying on Vampyr’s Leone is a traditional monster, one easily recognized by a fierce countenance and old, haggard body. The ancient woman uses no subtle beguilement, however instead employs henchmen who have willingly sold their souls to the devil.

The conclusion of both tales is a triumph on the part of good against evil. Each story wraps up nicely with our young women saved, their souls free from the devious clutches of the vampire.

As a battle of lesbian vampires, “Carmilla” is the undeniable winner of course, being the only story that has an actual lesbian vampire and indeed delivering on a dark eroticism shocking for its time. But, as a battle of the original story against that which it inspired, both are true classic masterpieces of vampire folklore in their own right. “Carmilla” is a staple of the literary vampire tradition, introducing an intensely sexual element that is merely alluded to in earlier work of the genre. Vampyr too is a classic piece of horror cinema, utilizing light and shadow to develop a macabre, dreamlike atmosphere.

In a Glass Darkly is an essential horror classic and you’ll have a number of versions to choose from. I couldn’t really recommend one in particular, but if you have a Kindle it’s available for free!

When it comes to Vampyr, I would strongly suggest the Criterion Collection 2 disc set (pictured above). It the most prized DVD in my collection. Not only is the packaging absolutely beautiful, it includes the original screenplay for the film and the short story “Carmilla.” There is a little essay booklet included essays by Kim Newman, critic and film historian Mark Le Fanu, notes on the film’s restoration by Martin Koerber, and an interview with Vampyr’s financier and star Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg. Then, after you get through all those goodies, there is a special features disc with Casper Tybjerg’s visual essay which I mention above, interviews with the director and other filmmaking legends like François Truffaunt discussing Dreyer’s impact on cinema. Anything I know about Vampyr I learned from essays and documentaries included in this film’s features.

Well, that’s it for the first edition of “Battle of the…” I hope you come back again because we’ll have some more cut-n-dry fights to the death to come!