Friday, February 12, 2016

Styria (2014) a.k.a. Angels Of Darkness: The Legend Of Carmilla Returns...

Because vampires have become pretty much a cliche in the last several years, it's next to impossible to find a fresh entry in the sub-genre. I'm always looking for something a little different, and perhaps enjoy the more obscure titles more than the popular mainstream ones, such as 2006's Perfect Creature, 1977's Martin, 2008's brilliant Let The Right One In and one of my most recent favorites:  Only Lovers Left Alive (2013).   So when I heard there was a new-ish film based on Sheridan Le Fanu's 1872 vampire novel Carmilla, I was on board quicker than you can say bloodletting.

Burdened with the supposedly American viewer-friendly yet eye-rolling title Angels of Darkness, Styria (also known as The Curse of Styria) finds us in late 80's Hungary at the end of the Cold War, where Lara Hill (Eleanor Tomlinson) and her father have arrived at a dilapidated castle in which Dr. Hill (Stephen Rea) is planning to uncover and possibly restore some very old murals hidden under layers of plaster.  Lara has been removed from the boarding school she spent most of her years at due to some violent behavior, so she is just getting used to spending time with her father.  Her mother, who apparently prevented Lara from being injured as a child in a nighttime attack,  is mysteriously missing from the picture.  We find out why eventually.

Lara, revealed to be a cutter, has some trouble settling in and prefers listening to music, adding morbid drawings to her journal and taking forbidden walks rather than spending time in the company of her father and the few townsfolk that stop in to the castle to stir things up.  While wandering in the woods she sees a car accident in which a young woman (Julia Pietrucha) quickly gets out of the wreckage and runs away, soon to be chased but not caught by the driver of the car.  Lara is able to settle the frightened passenger and takes her back to the castle to get her cleaned up. 

The beautiful blonde soon offers up her name, Carmilla, and the two girls become friends quite quickly.  Carmilla seems to want to push boundaries at every turn, whether it is exploring the ruins of the castle (which she seems to be mysteriously familiar with), swimming naked in a nearby pond, or staying out half the night looking up at the stars. Lara is entranced by the easy friendship, even though she knows something about Carmilla is a little "off".   When a local man who calls himself a "general" comes to the castle asking if Dr Hill or Lara has seen a known runaway orphan, Lara lies as she looks at the picture of Carmilla, denying that she has seen her at all. 

The enigmatic Carmilla exudes not only a tangible feeling of power over Lara but also has a profoundly sexual vibe, and each time Lara spends time with her the two grow closer.  Shrouded in mystery though, Carmilla is always disappearing when Lara turns her back, causing a sense of unease and near-dread that Lara just can't shake off.  And as Carmilla grows more adventurous, she expects Lara to follow her lead, causing more than a few moments of tense disagreement.
When young women in town begin to turn up dead from apparent suicides and Lara loses chunks of time, she begins to suspect that her friend may have something to do with it.  Or maybe even she herself is involved.

Styria is a gratifyingly slow burn.  The almost non-stop foggy atmosphere of the castle and grounds, together with the dimly lit sets and bluish tint of the entire film can't help but to evoke an eerie feeling of apprehension.  I don't know many horror fans that don't like creepy castles and serious neck wounds, so there should be enough here to keep any genre fan duly entertained.  The acting is really top-notch, with Rea his normal, fantastic self and exceptional turns by both Tomlinson and Pietrucha.

This is not your average vampire film though - very little is blatantly revealed, but anyone with any knowledge of the legendary creatures will see the subtle hints early on.  Vampires are mentioned, but not thrown in our face.  They remain in the shadows of the townsfolk's legends and superstitions, until it is time to face the truth, which even then is elusive and deceptive.

I wish more films were like this one.  Reeking atmosphere and yet very short on actual bloody violence, it drums along at a perfect pace, willing us along for the ride.  And while it is not a complete page-to-screen adaptation, it is faithful enough to Le Fanu's original tale that even the die-hards will be hard-pressed not to enjoy it. 

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