Queeries

A week ago, I'd never heard of Carmilla. Now the lesbian vampire franchise is everywhere

A few days after learning of the phenomenon, CBC Arts' Peter Knegt gave himself an education by watching The Carmilla Movie. Here's what he learned.

CBC Arts' Peter Knegt gave himself an education by watching The Carmilla Movie. Here's what he learned

The Carmilla Movie. (Brenden Adam-Zwelling/Shaftesbury)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.

This time last week, I had no idea that a certain phenomenon known as Carmilla even existed. But then this article began to make the CBC rounds, and I got a Carmillian education: one of Canada's most notable recent media exports is a web series about a lesbian vampire with the same name, and as per some 70 million YouTube views, it's a really big deal for a certain demographic. It's even spawned its own movie, which was released in theatres across the country this past Thursday for a special engagement ahead of being streamed online.

I suspect if I had been roughly a decade younger, I would have been all over this. Not to draw an overly obvious comparison, but every episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer is essentially in my blood at this point, and had there ever been a movie version of the TV series, I would have been there on opening night with bells and whistles on (or just a lot of wooden stakes). But alas, I fear it's entirely reasonable to blame age for my Carmilla-related ignorance. Which is not to say I wasn't fascinated to discover its existence — I mean, not only has it made its way from Canada to 193 different countries and 20 different languages, but it's based on a Gothic novella from 1871. So I decided to go see The Carmilla Movie on opening night to further my education, even through I still had never seen an episode or knew much more than very basic information I've already presented here. And this is what I learned.

The Carmilla Movie is produced by Shaftsbury with Telefilm Canada. It is the largest scripted YouTube channel targeted for millennials in Canada. (Brenden Adam-Zwelling/Shaftesbury)

They weren't exaggerating about the whole 'phenomenon' thing

I showed up for Thursday's 7:30pm showing of The Carmilla Movie at the Cineplex at Toronto's Yonge and Dundas Square over an hour before it began, thinking I'd good to go. But nope, it had already been sold out since that morning, and fans were already lined up wearing what I only assumed was Carmilla-influenced attire (unless vampire is just really "in" right now?). So I bought a ticket for the later show and came back a few hours later, finding a similar-looking crowd as I took a lone seat towards the back. Waiting for the film to the start, I surveyed the crowd and wondered if I was both the only male and person over 30 in the entire theatre. Either way, the vibe that this was an event for most people sitting around me was very clear. Whispers of excitement were evident everywhere, and when the film finally began, anyone still talking was quickly shushed by a sizeable portion of the audience.

I know things!

Now that I've seen the movie, I can confidently explain the general gist of Carmilla. Its title character is a 330-year-old vampire who — in the series — moves into a dorm on a university campus in Austria. She initially has a hostile relationship with her roommate Laura, but quickly they fall in love and, together with a Scooby gang of sorts, fight various bad things. By the end of the series, they find a way to make Carmilla become a human, and she and Laura move to Toronto to try and settle down. The aftermath of these two events are both major plot points of the movie. 

Essentially, the world of  Carmilla  is an extraordinary positive space for its LGBTQ characters — utopian, even — which must feel like a welcome escape for its fans, especially the many in countries where those spaces are few and far between.- Peter Knegt , Carmilla   newbie

If you haven't seen the show, the movie maybe isn't for you

OkK, so...I won't offer a critical opinion on The Carmilla Movie (mainly to avoid the comments section scorn of its rabid fan base), but I will say this: given that I hadn't seen any of the 109 web series episodes that preceded it, I rarely had much idea what was going on. The first 15 minutes give some background to any newcomers in terms of plot basics (see above), but not so much the characters themselves or the mythologies they are tied to. So dozens of occasions in which the audience seemed to be in on certain jokes were entirely lost on me, and the movie definitely — and justifiably, really — felt catered to the series' fans. The only thing I could relate it to was what it must have been like for the sorry few that were introduced to Sex and the City via its movie (or worse, that movie's sequel), so I felt incapable of expressing any real judgement.

The movie takes place five years after the series, when lead characters Laura and Carmilla are settling into regular life in downtown Toronto. (Brenden Adam-Zwelling/Shaftesbury)

It's really, really queer

Any Google search presents Carmilla in a very narrow light: it's "the lesbian vampire web series." But I was pleasantly surprised to find that it is so much more than that when it comes to LGBTQ representation. There's not just a lesbian vampire, but a whole world dominated by characters who are queer and/or female. They even have a non-binary character in LaFontaine, who goes by the pronouns "they/them/their." And the lone cis male character is basically there for occasional comic relief and not much else. Essentially, the world of Carmilla is an extraordinary positive space for its LGBTQ characters — utopian, even — which must feel like a welcome escape for its fans, especially the many in countries where those spaces are few and far between.

The music is very...lesbians circa mid-2000s

Not really important, but the highlight of The Carmillla Movie for me personally might have been the soundtrack, which felt gloriously dated in a way that I could actually relate to! Tegan and Sara's "I Know I Know I Know" (2004) and Uh Huh Her's "Explode" (2008) each get major showcases during two of the movie's most romantic scenes, and I immediately recognized both. In the midst of a movie where I felt completely out of touch with anything happening on the screen or around me, it was a very welcome moment of familiarity.

There are no tampons

One other thing I did know about Carmilla going into the movie is a pretty interesting aside: U By Kotex initially funded the series and the company is credited as an executive producer. It was actually commissioned for Kotex parent company Kimberly-Clark by Shift2, a branded entertainment agency based in Toronto that "specializes in helping marketers connect with millennials." As noted, I haven't seen the series, but this suggests the brand messaging was not extensive: "In some cases, the product or labeling is seen in the background. In one episode, a character throws her ex-girlfriend's Kotex tampons at her during a breakup argument." The movie, however, is not associated with Kotex, and no similar product placement was present (at least that I noticed). It was primarily funded through crowdsourcing instead. 

So in conclusion, I now can count myself part of a club that has millions of members worldwide. Even if I didn't fully understand what was going on half the time, at the very least I can appreciate the positive representation Carmilla is spreading all over the world. And that's nothing to wave a stake at.

Watch The Carmilla Movie online here.

About the Author

Peter Knegt

Peter Knegt has worked for CBC Arts since way back in 2016, with highlights including co-hosting weekly live talk show State of the Arts, writing the regular LGBTQ-culture column Queeries and playing integral roles in the launch of series The Filmmakers and Canada's a Drag. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films and the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

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