Crucible of the Vampire is the second film from writer and director Iain Ross-McNamee. It’s already premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and garnered a generally positive reception thanks to its moody, stripped-back approach. To accompany the film’s release, Ghost Dog Films are releasing a promotional graphic novel version of the story.
Adapted from the film by Ross-McNamee, with additional written material by Amanda Murray and cover design by Charlie Adlard, Crucible of the Vampire‘s graphic novel is a thrilling slow-burn of a read, especially for those who haven’t yet seen the film.
It’s important to talk a little about the film itself as the graphic novel is such a close representation. As well as Ross-McNamee, the film was co-written by John Wolskel and Darren Lake, and like Ross-McNamee’s previous film, The Singing Bird Will Come, Crucible has all the hallmarks of the classic British ghost story.
The son of an Anglican vicar, Ross-McNamee grew up surrounded by the Gothic inspiration of old English churches. His christian upbringing drew him to Ingmar Bergman‘s epic fantasy The Seventh Seal, a film steeped in religious horror, before later delving into modern Korean horror and its heightened sense of morality. As a filmmaker, he has a particular interest in female-led psychological horror, something that definitely comes through in both his films.
The story centres around a young university researcher named Isabelle (Katie Goldfinch) as she’s sent to rural Shropshire to verify a mysterious ancient artefact. She stays at the mansion of the family who uncovered the artefact while she works on safely unearthing it. The family are suspicious, to say the least, and during her stay she senses a dark presence in the house. It’s not long before Isabelle uncovers the secrets of the artefact, the history of the mansion and realises the trap that she’s been caught in.
The film also stars Neil Morrissey, Florence Cady, Larry Rew and Babette Barat.
Crucible is reminiscent of an older style of horror film, with a slowly paced plot that builds up to a violent crescendo of a climax. The feelings of terror in these types of films (and this book) stem not from gore or jump-scares but a gradual realisation of how dire a situation the protagonist is in. The film blends traditional Gothic with classic horror. Reading it in graphic novel form is reminiscent of an M.R. James novel in its gradual ratcheting up of tension and supernatural reveal at the end.
It’s a classic story of a naive young woman who goes to stay at a creepy old mansion, complete with the shifty residents hiding a secret, but the story is told in a way that doesn’t feel tired, as it’s clearly paying homage to these traditions. This is what makes it feel so familiar to read through, while at the same time being different enough to be unpredictable.
Throughout the narrative, there’s the ever-present link between horror, religion and sex, where the Ross-McNamee’s influences clearly come into play. Most of the tense, dramatic scenes are very suggestive and with the risk of sounding too spoiler-y, even the plot to some degree hinges on sex.
The story is unique in its merging of different sub-genres and features of horror, blurring elements like witchcraft, necromancy and vampires into one all-encompassing plot. While it invokes so many fantastical elements, it’s surprisingly rooted in factual historical events. Those familiar with the witch hunts and trials in England in the mid-1600s will recognise references to Matthew Hopkins, a legendary historical figure known as the self-styled Witchfinder General. This is the kind of element where if you enjoy the history of witches and witch trials, you’ll enjoy the references, but if not, they blend well enough into the fabric of the story that they don’t stand out as one of those shoehorned-in real-life cameos.
Some of the plot is admittedly a bit of a foregone conclusion. With the word “vampire” in the title, you know that at least somebody has to be a vampire, so that revelation isn’t exactly a huge twist. However, the true reveals throughout the plot have little to do with this and a much more with the mansion itself.
When talking about just the graphic novel version of this story, there are a fair amount of surprising little things that set it apart form the film. A graphic novel (or even a regular novel) is actually a perfect opportunity to include some features that just wouldn’t read well on screen, and that’s exactly what Crucible has done. Interspersed between what you could consider the main acts of the plot are excerpts from letters and diary entries. These serve to hint at backstory and give insight into characters’ true thoughts and feelings. It’s a feature that lends the graphic novel an epistolary feel and ties in nicely with the story’s Gothic references.
Not being the film itself, you can’t really talk about actors’ performances, but the characters themselves are definitely worth talking about. The characterisation as a whole is really enjoyable but especially the main family, the with the head of the household and his wife being the epitome of an eccentric wealthy older couple, yet at the same time they have a very unsettling air. Patriarch Karl (Rew) has a wonderfully creepy smile right from the beginning, so you just know he’s up to no good. But Scarlet (Cady) has to be the true breakout character, and definitely the most fun, at the same time both haughty and childlike. Her role gets bigger as the story goes on, and she has the most integral link to the mansion’s dark secret.
The panels are made up of stills from the film, rather than hand-drawn illustrations, that have been altered to have a sketched, cell-shaded effect. This is sometimes called a “photo-graphic novel” and is a somewhat new concept in graphic novels as form. This technique is often used in experimental comics and makes a ton of sense from Ghost Dog’s perspective, as they already have an abundance of images to use. For a small studio it’s so much simpler to use pre-existing stills than to hire out an artist. That said, for those who love the drawn illustrations of most comic books this might take some getting used to.
Because you have a page of still images, rather than a continuous flowing film some of the finer details of the actors’ performances’ get a bit lost, but having static images instead allow the atmospheric locations to take precedent. Establishing shots give more weight to those areas (the mansion especially) and you really notice the colour palette shift from light, airy spaces to the claustrophobic basement and night scenes.
The book itself is very high quality, with glossy pages and a coffee-table-book feel. The first edition comes with a couple of goodies, including an A3 poster by Charlie Adlard and a brochure map of the area with hand written notes by Isabelle, which are a cute touch. These all serve to make the graphic novel a great tie in with the film, and works best as a supplemental to it as it has those little bits of extra info, like the sections penned by Murray.
Crucible is an absolute page-turner of a read and makes a great standalone graphic novel, movie aside. I’d recommend it to anyone who’s a fan of comics and graphic novels in general, or if you just prefer to read your stories rather than watch them. That said, I’d advise both watching and reading, as the graphic novel is works its best as a supplement. The movie will release internationally later this year, so there’s plenty of time to read Crucible while you wait.
Check out the trailer for the graphic novel below: