Daughters of Darkness
directed by Harry Kumel
starring Delphine Seyrig, John Karlen, Andrea Rau
“One of the most elegant horror pictures ever made”. The pull quote from L.A. Times film critic Kevin Thomas emblazoned across the top of the oversized VHS box for the mid ’80s home video release of Daughters of Darkness still stands as one of the best descriptions of Harry Kumel’s vampire masterpiece which has been restored into a sublime new 4k Ultra HD Blu-ray by Blue Underground.
Newlyweds Stefan and Valerie are on their honeymoon when they decide to stop off at an opulent seaside hotel in Belgium. It is winter and the hotel and they are the only guests until the arrival of the Countess Elisabeth Bathory and her secretary/companion/lover Ilona. The hotel desk clerk swears Bathory is the woman he remembers from childhood, but that was decades ago but she hasn’t aged a day. Delphine Seyrig plays Elisabeth Bathory as a motherly figure who can be found knitting, but is also a very seductive and dominant mistress. She doesn’t enforce her will through sadism, but rather through emotional manipulation. The notion of female middle age sexuality is so seldom explored for anything but comedy in film and Seyrig’s performance is the linchpin for the entire film. Setting her apart from standard movie vamps, Bathory is never the aggressor; instead she is all smiles, cuddles, and kisses. Delphine Seyrig’s vampire is a cultured aristocrat whose genteel smile and impeccable manners have her victims giving themselves to her willingly. Andrea Rau on the other hand is a semi-feral thing that is still learning to quell her animalistic tendencies. Then we have John Karlen as Stefan who as a mortal human has no promise of eternal life, he is merely a sadist who inflicts pain on others to mask his own insecurities and may be the most dangerous of the lot. Poor Valerie never stood a chance, but in the end she proves herself to be no one’s victim and stakes her own agency through vampirism. The cultured aristocrat killing with kindness is far more unnerving than it may appear as she uses her and Ilona’s sexuality against Stefan and Valerie. She is like a cult leader gently forcing her followers to compete for her attention. She keeps gently plucking at Stefan until the sadist he keeps lurking just under the surface is released. Fueled by jealousy and humiliation he predictably beats his young bride, ironically sending her into the arms of the vampire for protection.
Kumel’s film, especially in today’s cultural climate could be read as a take down on toxic masculinity and Stefan is about as toxic as it gets. He is a sadistic abuser and quite possibly a closeted, self loathing homosexual (one of many plot elements left tantalizingly opaque). He thinks the Countess and Ilona are both trying to seduce him, when their desires are clearly aimed toward Valerie. When Stefan is cuckolded on his honeymoon he lashes out with a brutal fury that drives his bride into the arms of the one trying to steal her away. Despite all of his attempts to control his wife and their situation, once the Countess arrives and sets her sights on Valerie, Stefan has no control over anything, but even when he is nearly buried alive disposing of Ilona’s corpse, the fool still thinks he has a chance so it must have been quite the shock to discover the only reason he was pulled from his sandy grave was to give Bathory and Valerie someone to feed from.
The early 1970s in America, horror was all about the grit and gore, while in Europe the trend was for gorgeous, perverse fairy tales decked with lush design and memorable visual flair. Daughters of Darkness absolutely luxuriates in a beauty that is a thin facade for something much uglier beneath the surface, which is what the film is all about. For all of its deserved reputation for beauty, and every frame of the film is worth framing, there is no shortage of the macabre in the movie.
Daughters of Darkness is a truly great film equally at home in an art house or grindhouse. The film is meltingly beautiful and lingers strong in the memory and continues to captivate after decades of revisits. So much of the movie is wrapped in tantalizing ambiguity, but it never feels like a cheat or a gimmick, instead the unfilled areas allow the viewer’s psyche and imagination to weave a beautiful and unique tapestry that elevates the low budget sexy lesbian vampire film into a fine piece of European art house cinema while still being an effective Eurocult horror movie. If you take out the vampirism the plot of Daughters of Darkness is indistinguishable from any number of art house lesbian dramas where the young woman in an abusive heterosexual relationship find confort and love in the arms of a wise, understanding, older woman.
Blue Underground has for decades been a leader in great cult film releases and in recent years their 3 disc sets have been consistently among the best the industry has to offer. The three disc set for the film has raised the bar again with an epic 4K UHD/Blu-Ray/CD combo. The film is presented on both formats with the soundtrack included on the 3rd CD. The new transfer from the camera negative by Blue Underground is absolutely exquisite. The film’s picture is vastly improved from previous editions with improved shadow detail and color while retaining the film’s original grain and texture so it doesn’t suffer from looking over polished and stripped of character, This still looks like Daughters of Darkness just somehow even more beautiful.
On top of outstanding restoration the extras included on this set are incredible. The set features three audio commentaries with two archival tracks and a brand new commentary from Kat Ellinger who literally wrote the book on the movie. Her book from Auteur Publishing’s Devil’s Advocates series is a must read for fans of this film. On the commentary, Ellinger discusses how Harry Kumel’s film avoids and subverts the standard vampire tropes. She compares standard vampire tales to fairy tales and compares Daughters of Darkness to the French Fantastique, a literary genre which avoided the obvious depiction of monsters in favor of a nuanced approach where the veracity of the supernatural is left deliberately oblique. Ellinger takes on the notion that Daughters of Darkness is a feminist film. She contends is most assuredley not the intention of director Harry Kumel but is rather a revision of the meaning that creates a valid feminist reading of the film. The track goes so much deeper than the nuts and bolts on the film’s production, but delves deep into the psyche of the film, preferring to discuss the subtext over the text. Other extras include interviews with actresses Danielle Ouimet and Andrea Rau, director Harry Kumel, and co-writer/co-producer Pierre Drouot. There are trailers, radio ads, photo gallery and extensive liner notes including a new essay by Rue Morgue magazine’s Michael Gingold.
Despite the film’s sterling reputation Daughters of Darkness still feels under-seen by current horror fans and hopefully a striking, uncompromised released of this intriguing, sexy, and influential horror classic from Blue Underground will be the start of a new appreciation for the film which still has the power to thrill and has plenty to say nearly 50 years later.