The Carmilla Webseries: On Lesbian Vampires and Creampuffs
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Queer vampires don’t get happy endings. They get staked into goo or ashed or abandoned for someone more alive and straight. Despite all the queer allegories inherent to vampire mythos–with them being aloof outsiders forced to hide their nature less they be brutally murdered–queer vampires are treated like second-class citizens when compared to their straight or Bi-during-Sweeps sisters and brothers. The birth of that trope can be traced back to 1871 when Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu wrote the very first “modern” vampire story (a full 26 years before Bram Stoker got us all obsessed with a guy from Transylvania). Le Fanu’s Carmilla was an erotic (by Victorian social mores) novella that brutally played on Victorian fears with a story of a girl’s best friend who loved her just a little too much. It was the original Single White Female, only with more blood sucking and transfiguration.

Carmilla and her cinematic incarnations have since been fetishized and victimized and generally savaged in films like the sensually violent The Vampire Lovers and the psychedelically lustful Vampyros Lesbos. You’ll note I ran through my thesaurus for words similar to erotic to construct that sentence, and that’s no mistake. Queer lady vampires are all about sex, sex, sex. Carmilla, in particular, is always condemned to being a heaving bosomed villain preying on the virginal Laura. Their romance–rarely portrayed as such–is deeply forbidden by the censors monitoring the films, and the audiences watching them, and the filmmakers making them.

The queer nature of these women is hidden behind hugs that go on too long and tremulous sighs that hint at the homoeroticism roiling beneath the surface, or it’s gaudily exploitative with blank faced ingénues eliciting throaty moans with a touch. The only thing ever consistent is the queerness of Carmilla (and other vampires inspired by her). Meanwhile, Laura, and other heroines inspired by her, wanders the Kinsey scale with abandon. Sometimes they are seduced, as in The Hunger, and other times they’re unwilling prey, as in Et Mourir de Plaisir.

But always these heroines return to the safety of heterosexuality like it’s a warm cocoon that guards them against the cold affections of the vampires in their lives. Sometimes the queer vampires go straight too-flinging themselves at genders they once admired only platonically or rejecting their queerness for something more palatably hetero. HBO’s True Blood was notorious for its liberal use of sex scenes and its queer vampires, yet in the final season of the show one queer vampire is unceremoniously whacked off-screen while the only self-identified lesbian vampire in seven seasons of the shows decides she prefers men after all.

Pam Goes Het True Blood

Carmilla, the titular heroine of the webseries on YouTube, should be doomed as soon as she explodes through the dorm room door. This variation on the 143 year old tale has been updated to a 2014 variation of the fictive nation of Styria and Laura is now a college student with a passion for Veronica Mars-style investigations while Carmilla is her new roommate, assigned after her old roommate mysteriously disappears. Colleges are familiar playgrounds for queer lady vamps. There its easy to cast them aside at the end of the story as the heroine’s attraction to their otherness is laughed off as an “experimentation.”

But this webseries isn’t laughing. Carmilla isn’t a phase to be shyly murmured about at the dinner table during holidays or an exploitative sexbomb that’s all boobs and sighs. She’s a dour leather clad heroine reluctant to save the day. She’s charm and smirks and a low key energy that could easily turn into a cinematic vacuum. Only Natasha Negovanlis imbues her with just enough heart to keep her from sucking the energy out of the show. She carefully balances the abject collegiate nihilism Carmilla wears as armor with the warm humor a heroine like Carmilla needs–letting it peek out at just the right moments.

Elise Bauman, as Laura, is appropriately the opposite. She’s almost exhaustingly energetic early in the series, throwing out so much its easy to see why Negovanlis chooses to just sit back and act as a cushion for all Bauman’s pushing. For budgetary reasons the camera recording them is stationary. It gives the whole production a sense of a theater’s proscenium stage, and Bauman and Negovanlis gamely embrace their respective sides of that stage. It’s when one crosses over that things spark–as Carmilla invades Laura’s space in the habit of a new nasty roommate or later when Laura coyly crosses into Carmilla’s half of the stage in an effort to seduce her. These two actresses understand how to use their space well and they often times come off as old pros, which makes up for the inevitable moments where you cringe at a line delivered badly.

Carmilla is an ultra low-budget production and that means things are sacrificed. The cast is largely white because all the actresses of color are in actor unions and thus too expensive to be employed for this production and the entire series is shot in one location by a stationary camera to cut down on time it takes to shoot. But some of the production’s cost cutting measures harm the show. Actors had almost no rehearsal time and only one to two takes for every scene. Some do much better than others with their limitations. Sharon Belle, as the willowy knight in shining armor Danny, especially stands out. Danny is painfully good (if patronizingly protective) and Belle brings a lot of honesty to proceedings. She’s a tall clean-cut counterbalance to Carmilla’s tiny cloud of irritability. It’s striking because it’s all on the actresses to find create these balances. They don’t have a director guiding them so much as they have someone shouting “action” and “cut” while they instinctively seek out the characters they’ve been asked to play.

The audience gets to join the actors as they find their characters. It’s communal theater with each little discovery coming off as revelatory and it better forges the bond between the actors and their audience, but the stilted delivery and awkward blocking that comes from such instinctive and unrehearsed theater also forms a barrier too. This time between audience and story. The unrehearsed nature of the production creates this low-level kind of noise in each scene and it’s obscenely distracting. You’re always acutely aware of the actresses playing the roles. It is rarely Carmilla and Laura but Natasha Negovanlis as Carmilla and Elise Bauman as Laura. As heroically as these women are written and as sigh-inducing as their romance may be it is rarely allowed to click.

A major exception is in the final episode when, for just an instant, things are calm and these two actresses seem relaxed and they’re allowed to fully sink into the skin of the characters they’re playing. They kiss and all facsimile of the actors disappear. They’re just a plucky young heroine dragging an ancient vampire onto a journey of heroism that would do Joseph Campbell proud and they’re finally together–earning the happy ending all of Carmilla’s forebearers were denied.

That happy ending is so important. As is the sheer number of queer people in the production. The characters cover a whole spectrum of queer identities. There’s plenty of gold star lesbians, bisexual women and ladies who abhor “labels.” There’s also S. LaFontaine, a genderqueer person who avoids defining themself with gendered pronouns, drops their given name of Susan, and is involved in a very cute platonic romance with the more uptight Perry. There hasn’t been this many queer characters on-screen since Lost Girl went on hiatus. The genderqueer in particular have experienced a drought since they ruined Franky on Skins.

Pictured: (L) Genderqueer character that starts off excellent and goes to shit. (R) Genderqueer character that starts off excellent and stays excellent.

Pictured: (L) Genderqueer character that starts off excellent and goes to shit. (R) Genderqueer character that starts off excellent and stays excellent.

This is representation the queer community desperately needs. They’re happy queer women bringing down evil vampires and assaulting the patriarchy and joining forces with ghosts trapped in USB drives and refusing to be defined by their sexuality. As inherent as Carmilla’s queerness is to the plot it’s never her key trait and LaFontaine’s identification as genderqueer isn’t something the characters ever fuss over. Even the rare straight boy that wanders into the scene isn’t appalled by all the queerness happening. It’s pleasantly normalized.

Which is why Carmilla is oftentimes a frustrating show. There’s this adage in the queer community that a queer lady will watch just about anything if it has lesbians in it. The LBGTQ section of Netflix is rife with awful films that only sold because two bad actresses came together to recite bad lines from a bad script and then kiss like porn stars for the titillation of queer women. For every Imagine Me and You or next year’s Carol there’s twenty The Gymnast and Bloomington littering poor queer women’s Netflix queues.

Carmilla skirts dangerously close to the line of “good but because lesbians.” It’s a difficult series to actively encourage others to watch and it has nothing to do with the actresses and actors who inhabit the world written by series writer Jordan Hall. They’re good actresses given a crummy break by being bereft of many of the tools critical to a performance. It isn’t Hall’s fault either. The dialogue is snappy and heavily stylized. It’s the kind of dialogue that bounces between actors and slips cleverly off the tongue.

Set design and lighting are perfectly charming too, and sound, often the bane of low-budget shoots, is more than adequate. The sound design embraces the theater motif and rarely incorporates overt sound effects. Chunky heels clunk across the wooden floor and doors squeak naturally. More importantly the actors all sound rich and alive. They don’t have the tinny voices of cheap microphones. It’s good work.

But the direction (or lack there of) and the number of hallmarks of the show’s low budget (a producer issue) severely hamper it. The lack of rehearsal and the rushed schedule show in every shot.

“But we get queer people,” you say, pointing to that breathless kiss or the shy dance or LaFontaine refusing to be called Susan. “We get representation!”

Yet in the production’s haste to give us representation they’ve poisoned their own well. If an audience member doesn’t have that thirst queer viewers have for representation they’re gonna have a difficult time making it through flubbed lines and awkward blocking and bad line readings. And should we ask them, or ourselves, to suffer? Shouldn’t, instead, we ask our queer filmmakers to do better? To stop giving us “just enough?” Shouldn’t we ask producers and directors to structure their budget so their actors have time to do their jobs?

The first season of Carmilla ended with a little cliffhanger and a whole lot of deserved romance and cast and crew and fandom are already hard at work campaigning for a second season. The relationship between the show’s staff and cast and the fandom is the lightning in a bottle kind that would leave Kerry Washington and her gladiators envious. The cast responds enthusiastically to “meta” and fanart created Tumblr and Twitter by their “Creampuffs” and the fandom has produced works of art based on the project that sometimes surpass the artistry in the project itself. There’s a sense that they’re all in this together–creating good queer representation through sheer force of will.

And the Creampuffs and the cast and the crew all deserve better. This show needs a second season, but its producers desperately need to re-evaluate their approach. Season 2 shouldn’t feel like the weekend passion project shot in a basement that season 1 feels like. The audience shouldn’t have to explain away problems on screen with long tales of behind the scene issues. Carmilla should get her happy ending, and so should the queer girls watching her.

  • Victoria_92

    The series is pretty bad. It just uses gimmicky tactics to easily access a niche audience. There are a bunch of web series appealing to queer audiences which get a lot of views, but have terrible production values. The acting and direction in Carmilla are brutal, especially for something that’s supposedly produced by a big company!

  • Lucy

    You’re absolutely right about how this is one of the few shows that treats its queer characters and viewers with respect, and it’s a testament to how rare this is that viewers will ignore some of the hallmarks of its low budget. For me, when the delivery would fall flat on some lines, that was a little distracting. I’m curious to see in a second season if those kinds of issues can be addressed. Besides that, the script and acting has been very engaging and I hope it can continue.

  • Emily Brien

    I feel this article, though not short of back-handed compliments, is missing the point. Carmilla is a webseries, and manufactured as such. The single, static camera angle? A choice. It’s not trying to be a high-budget hollywood series, it’s connecting digital and traditional media in a way that is still very new, but to pin it against television standards is like comparing a dog’s ability to breath underwater with that of a goldfish. People of the internet, queer or not, appreciate the series for the new taste that it is. A single camera combines an internet ‘vlog’ (video blog- welcome to youtube) style to traditional production, with (as mentioned) good quality sound and lighting not usually found in “basement passion projects”. For a low-budget series, funded fully by women’s hygiene company, U by Kotex (has that been done before?) I think the entire cast and crew did incredibly well regardless. A show that covers so much representation in such a natural way through it’s characters (and even the actors playing them) as well as encouraging open discussion about periods & women’s hygiene products, is a step in the right direction. It’s liberating, as female viewers, to be part of a community that fosters a sense of sisterhood and support- which is something we can all benefit from, regardless of gender or sexuality.

    • I don’t think I missed the point. I appreciate the show and actually like the stationary camera thing.

      But cutting rehearsal time to cut budget resulted in a major quality issue that is difficult to overlook. There were likely ways they could have resolved the issue but they said “good enough,” and the queer women community just went ahead and said “thanks.” Again.

      My fingers are crossed that they get a second season and that they take things more seriously. Can you imagine how great it would be if they had the same aesthetic but the actresses had rehearsal time and the director actually did their job?

  • ami

    In reference to True Blood, actually Pam wasn’t lesbian – none non-straight female character in the whole series was a lesbian, they were all bisexual (while there were plenty gay men), and they were all with the exception of Pam killed off.
    Though the fact that Pam wasn’t lesbian doesn’t change much, because the message – returning to her man after female lover was killed off – is still the same. True Blood was generally very misogynistic TV show.