Harry Kümel, 1971
Starring: Delphine Seyrig, Danielle Ouimet, John Karlen, Andrea Rau
A couple on their honeymoon, Stefan and Valerie, are staying at an isolated hotel in Belgium during the off season. Valerie is waiting for them to travel to England to meet Stefan’s mother, but he keeps delaying her because he thinks his mother will be judgmental. At the hotel, they meet Countess Elizabeth Bathory, a beautiful Hungarian woman, and her assistant Ilona. The concierge claims he saw Bathory when he was just a child, and that she has not aged a day.
When Valerie discovers Stefan is quite cruel, they begin to not get along and strike up an unlikely friendship with Bathory and Ilona. It turns out that Bathory is attracted to Valerie and has set her possibly unsavory designs on the young couple. Meanwhile, a detective has followed Bathory across Europe, because he suspects she is a serial killer murdering young women and draining their blood…
The lesbian vampire subgenre, which essentially began with Coleridge’s long poem Christabel and Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella Carmilla, has been adapted dozens of times by now for the screen, but for some reason I never seem to get sick of it. Dracula’s Daughter, The Vampire Lovers, Blood and Roses, The Blood-Spattered Bride, and others are some of my favorite films from the ‘70s and earlier. Daughters of Darkness is one of the finest of these films and comes highly recommended both to seasoned genre fans and horror newcomers.
One of the few films that can be described as Belgian horror (there have also been some recent efforts like Calvaire), this is technically a co-production between Belgium, France, and West Germany. As with Dorian Gray, this is a compelling, though flawed mix of horror, art house, and erotica. Alongside the incredible cinematography, glamorous costumes, Belgian countryside, coast, and enormous hotels — including the Grand Hotel des Thermes and the Hotel Astoria — provide a wonderful, if lonely and imposing sense of style. Though there is some violence in the film, the focus is on beauty, glamour, sex appeal, the erotic.
This is essentially a film about a woman’s sexual awakening and self-discovery, but told as a horror film with ageless vampires, a foreboding Belgian setting, and a sadistic husband with a dark secret. Though Bathory is obviously a vampire, we are introduced subtly and gradually to this idea. A man at the hotel recognizes her from when he was a child and is convinced she has not aged. Bodies of young girls drained of blood turn up in the area. Finally, she drains Valerie and makes her immortal. This has a little in common with George Romero’s Martin in the sense that Bathory’s monstrosity is ambiguous and is almost never presented as a concrete fact, but rather a perception by various characters — and by Bathory herself.
While Daughters of Darkness is obviously another rendition of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, it also takes some inspiration from the historical tale of Hungarian female serial killer Elizabeth Bathory. Not much of Bathory’s actual story is contained here, but the Countess does bear the same name. It also bears a similar sense of style, subtly, and horror with Baba Yaga, though the latter concerns a young couple and an aged, though glamorous, witch.
The Countess and Ilona always seemed to me to represent something of Hollywood glamour, as the Countess resembles a young Marlene Dietrich and Ilona’s style and haircut is clearly aping tragic silent actress Louise Brooks. The incredible Delphine Seyrig (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Last Year at Marienbad, Jeanne Dielman) is perfect as the Countess and brings a sense of grace and style to the film. I can’t imagine it without her. Andrea Rau (Lola) is quite memorable as the tragic Ilona, the Countess’s loyal companion who seems to knowingly go to her death. Part of her appeal is in the sense of mystery and sadness that surrounds her character, but I do wish there was more of her in the film.
John Karlen (Dark Shadows) is fittingly unlikable as Stefan and is perfect for the role. Danielle Ouimet (Satan’s Sabbath) doesn’t possess a lot of natural acting talent, but her performance here works because Valerie is clearly so lost and essentially moves between a controlling, abusive husband and the controlling, blood-sucking Countess. Like The Blood-Spattered Bride, this is essentially the tale of a young woman’s escape from her controlling, abusive, and sexually exploitative husband. Her liberation is by means of a sexy, charismatic female vampire and the lesbian relationship that unfolds between the bride and the vamp.
Though Daughters of Darkness isn't a particularly gory film, violence and blood-lust is constantly entwined with a sense of menacing sexuality. There is a disturbing scene where Valerie and Stefan stumble across a young dead girl (drained of blood) who is believed to be the victim of a serial killer, most likely Bathory and Ilona. Stefan becomes aroused by the corpse and Valerie is disturbed by this change in her husband. Bathory and Stefan also have a strange scene where they discuss torture and murder. The conversation clearly excites both of them, implying that Valerie is really only moving from one sadist to another.
Perhaps more disturbingly, Stefan’s relationship with his mother is not what it seems. At first Valerie learns that he is reluctant to introduce her to his mother, because she is sensitive and controlling; she might not approve of Valerie. Later we learn that “Mother” is his manipulative boyfriend. Stefan, though possibly gay, is at least bisexual and has a violent streak. His only sexual interest in Valerie is shown in a scene where he whips her aggressively.
Also known as Children of the Night, The Red Lips, Blood on the Lips, and other variations of those titles, Daughters of Darkness is one of the best exercises in European vampiric horror and comes highly recommended. There’s a lovely two-disc DVD that includes The Blood-Spattered Bride. Both films, as well as the DVD set, come highly recommended.