Daughters of Darkness (1971)
Strange as it may seem the lesbian vampire genre has been with us since the dawn of modern vampire fiction itself Though not stated in any outright way Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla, which heavily influenced Bram Stoker's later novel Dracula, had an unmistakable subtext. Two females bonding in such a way, and the intimate manner in which sustenance is taken, did not go unnoticed by a number of writers and directors that wanted to push the envelope. By the early 1970s most of those envelopes were little more than confetti, particularly by the time Hammer got in on it.
Hammer, as usual, went for the exploitation aspects, as did Jess Franco in the still quite artsy Vampyros Lesbos. Harry Kümel, on the other hand, decided to do away with the more lurid and prurient parts of the genre for Daughters of Darkness. Rather than blood and nudity - even though there is a decent amount - he sought to make a film about abusive relationships that just happen to have lesbian vampires. With religious imagery, bleak landscapes and a heap of his own pretentions this should be a bore, kind of like Blow-Up, which is more interesting to talk about than actually watch. However, despite that, Daughters of Darkness still manages to overcome those issues and remain an interesting film.
Stefan (John Karlen) and Valerie (Danielle Ouimet) are newlyweds, having met and married within a few days. He is frightened about her meeting his aristocratic mother in England, and promises to let Mom know what has happened as soon as possible, although he keeps delaying a phone call to her. They arrive in the Belgian port city of Ostende and, because it is the off-season, check into a hotel where they are the only guests as they wait for the ferry to England. That is, they are the only guests until the Countess Elizabeth Bathory (Delphine Seyrig) and her companion Ilona (Andrea Rau) arrive.
The Countess immediately takes an interest in the newlyweds, while Ilona begins to fear that she is going to be tossed aside. Meanwhile, a series of murders in nearby Bruges catches Stefan's eye, and they encounter the body of one of the women being removed from the scene while there. This seems to trigger violent impulses on behalf of Stefan, and Valerie is not sure if she is comfortable with them. As she tries to leave the Countess sets about seducing her, while Ilona is sent to seduce Stefan. However, the results are not exactly as Bathory has planned.
Just to spoil something quickly - and it might just have been me, and the way I would have typically written a story like this - despite a lot of hints, Stefan is not a serial killer. I know I would have gone on the tangent of making the girls' murders coincidental to the fact that some vampires have just arrived in town and revealed at the end that our masochistic, death-obsessed leading man was the true villain. I was kind of hoping this would happen but, being a European film - technically a Belgian, Italian, German, Canadian and American film with a Flemish director - it is going to have a small twist or two, but much of that is going to be for finishing up the story after getting done saying whatever it has to say.
Harry Kümel says it is a very Belgian film, and I guess I have to take him at his word. I know of Belgium for only a few things: being the unfortunate end-run around France's border defenses in two wars, and having a king that rivaled their box-mustached neighbor in atrocities. I also know that the two main ethnic groups, the Flems and the Walloons, don't always see eye-to-eye. If Daughters of Darkness is supposed to be some larger treatise on Belgian history and relations, maybe it comes through in both the violent relationship between the newlyweds and the neglectful attitude Bathory has toward Ilona.
Not being of the culture from whence this came what I can concentrate on is the atmosphere and the visuals. A lot of the exterior shots were made at dawn or dusk, with little time for filming, and it appears that it really was filmed during the off-season in the town of Ostende. A seaside resort, throughout the movie it appears pretty much abandoned, with the large modern office and apartment buildings looming like obelisks in the crepuscular mist. It is a place in the modern world where one would expect vampires to lurk.
Unlike most European films at the time Daughters of Darkness was filmed entirely in English rather than having everyone speak their own languages and then dubbing for various markets. Despite this Delphine Seyrig, one of the biggest names in French cinema at the time this was made, doesn't let that deter her from putting forth an amazing performance. The film takes place in 1971, but Bathory, despite being hinted that she is the 17th-century Hungarian Countess known for murdering young women to bathe in their blood, takes on an air of 1930s class. John Karlen, an American actor largely known for the television series Dark Shadows, manages to measure up with her in his disturbing portrayal of Stefan.
The weak parts are Danielle Ouimet and Andrea Rau, both veterans of softcore films in Quebec and Germany, respectively. Famously, Rau showed up with visible tan lines for her nude scenes, pretty much pulling one of the idea of this being a serious film with a veneer of exploitation horror. Neither of them give outstanding performances, with Ouimet being a bit better, but they were the ones required to do the nudity and were less shy about it - and didn't have as much to lose in this type of film as Seyrig might have.
Some of the usual problems I have with European horror are here - style over substance, for one, although it doesn't get as much in the way of story as some films. One thing I think a lot of critics are afraid to say about Continental films is that the directors sometimes have no idea how to end them, and they just peter out to some trite finale. That's the main disappointment with Daughters of Darkness, which after the feeling throughout that it's building up to something truly spectacular or important, it goes with an unnecessary coda when it already had come to satisfying end. Still, until it starts losing its way, this is a fine, atmospheric film, and nowhere near the the softcore male fantasy most of these movies go for.
Daughters of Darkness (1971)
Time: 97 minutes
Starring: Delphine Seyrig, John Karlen, Danielle Ouimet, Andrea Rau
Director: Harry Kümel