Daughters of Darkness – Fateful encounters (100 minutes Belgium/West Germany/France 1971)
“I was wrong, after all… What you did wasn’t foolish, Stefan, it was merely… Unrealistic.”
Almost 40 years on, “Daughters of Darkness” shows even better than when it was first released. This is not a gore-fest, and while I wouldn’t call it a character study, it certainly has more layers than the Horror genre typically leads you to expect. It means neither to blow the viewer away, nor to titillate. It is absorbing, somewhat like “let the right one in”. But more on this later…
When this movie came out, the vampire sub-genre was waning: “Daughters of Darkness was book-ended between Roman Polanski’s “the fearless vampire hunters” (1967) and “Dracula and son” (1976), a French spoof starring Christopher Lee.
I remember the early ‘70s as a sort of “either or” proposition, in terms of cinema: serious films (at times overly so, veering into pretentiousness) or exploitation flicks, with little in between. On the face of it, and given when “Daughters of Darkness” came out, I suspect it was wrongly perceived as exploitation, with elements of horror and soft-porn. Many reviews tend to label it as “lesbian vampire horror” or “erotic vampire” story, and while this is not entirely inaccurate, it tends to lessen the scope of the film.
Yes, there are several shots of full frontal nudity, and female characters kissing, but… Vampires by nature are sexual beings seducing their prey before feeding on them. The need defines the skill.
There are really two main story arcs in “Daughters of Darkness”, as well as two predators. We begin with the young newlyweds, Valerie (Danielle Ouimet) and Stefan (John Karlen), and soon realize Stefan is essentially a sadistic child in a man’s body. He remains emotionally detached from Valerie, only reaching out to her after she is hurt by his behavior: he appears to feed on her vulnerability and attraction to him, and keeps testing her. Much of this is like watching a kid pulling the wings and legs off a fly.
Such behaviors are more widely understood nowadays than in 1971, thanks in part to self-help literature and talk shows, but in retrospect John Karlen’s role and his performance were highly unusual for the day and accurately portrayed a fractured individual swaying between fear and rage, projecting his need for control upon his bride.
A revealing influence on Stefan’s character is the personage referred to as “Mother” and “Lady Chilton”, who turns out to be an older man growing orchids in surroundings of green and purple (director Kumel also relies on color to define characters and events): more sugar daddy than mother as it appears, and something Stefan is desperately trying to conceal from Valerie. Appropriately enough we are introduced to them as they travel to Ostende on a train, appropriate because Stefan is compelled to compartmentalize his relationships.
They arrive at the Palais des Thermes during the off season, the sole guests in this oppressive looking structure. Shortly after sunset, another couple arrives: the countess Elizabeth Bathory (Delphine Seyrig) and her companion Ilona (Andrea Rau). Dressed in 1930s fashions, the countess appears to the stunned concierge in exactly the same way as she did 40 years prior, to which she replies he probably remembers her mother. That is until she calls him by his first name, “Pierre”, toying with his apprehension with a jab at his fear. You see, Pierre remembers a series of unsolved murders which took place in the region 40 years ago. This is unspoken and slowly revealed as the story unfolds.
In real life, countess Elizabeth Bathory was in fact a historical figure from, of all places, Transylvania. Born in August 1560, she died sometime in August 1614 at the Cachtice castle where she was walled in. During the Long War against the Ottomans, while her husband was away, she provided for and defended the peasantry of their lands.
Sometime after her husband, Ferenc Nádasdy, died in 1604, four of her servants were tried and executed for participating in crimes which she was rumored to have ordered, the torture and murder of hundreds of young girls. The crimes were said to involve mutilations, sexual abuse, and baths taken by the countess in her victims’ blood for the purpose of maintaining her youth. Later on, allegations of vampirism took place. For political reasons, she was not tried, but imprisoned at Cachtice until her death.
Now, in the neighboring town of Bruges, the bodies of young women drained of their blood raise old fears.
Stefan and Valerie witness the body of such a victim being taken away by ambulance and a retired policeman takes note of these foreigners.
He follows them to the hotel where the familiar figure of the countess is waiting for them. What unfolds is a sinister game of musical chairs between the protagonists. Ilona wants to leave the countess, eventually getting her wish. Stefan, who bound Valerie to himself, already yearns to be free from those ties and also gets his wish. Perhaps more than companionship, the countess herself was looking for a “vessel”.
They all may get theirs, but only the countess through power and dark skills, found satisfaction.
Is there any form of retribution at last?
To quote Francis Urqhart, F.U. to his friends, “you might very well think so, but I couldn’t possibly comment.”
Listen closely to Valerie’s last words…
“Daughters of Darkness” gets 5 jellybeans.