Friday, July 11, 2014

Daughters of Darkness (1971)

“Genre rules” seem to be most common in zombie and vampire films, and it’s with these particular genres that breaking the “rules” ends up being the most controversial. Yet, these so called rules are non-existent, and filmmakers can do whatever they want. Of course, the big risk with breaking too many rules is that so many people will already hate the movie before/without even bothering to see it. On the other hand, sticking with the rules and relying too heavily on clichés is too easy and contributes to oversaturation of a genre. I personally enjoy the best of both worlds, classic and innovative, the best of the old with the best of the new. Give me what I came for, but surprise me too. Clichés are important but more for the sake of maintaining a basis of familiarity.

Harry Kümel’s emblematic, chic, and sensual vampire seduction Daughters of Darkness falls somewhere in the middle ground between familiar and different. It probably isn’t even worth mentioning the many parallels between this movie and The Blood Spattered Bride or The Shiver of the Vampires, other than to note they were made around the same time and manage to be so different from one another, even though they tell similar stories. They all contain a common sapphic vampire story that owes a lot to Sheridan Le Fanu’s novel Carmilla, which was adapted a year earlier with The Vampire Lovers in 1970 and ten years before that with Blood and Roses.



In Daughters of Darkness the Carmilla figure, an immortal vampiress who mysteriously arrives on the scene with a focus to seduce/destroy a female human, is the Hungarian Countess Elisabeth Báthory (Delphine Seyrig). It’s a nice imagining of what The Blood Countess might’ve been up to had she been able to escape her sentence of being immured in her own castle and managed to stay eternally young. Kümel originally wanted to create a period, costume piece about Elisabeth Báthory, but budget restrictions resulted in the film ending up being what it is, which I'm thankful for, because Countess Dracula was made the same year, and another one probably would've been redundant.




Upping the appeal this time around in this familiar tale is the pairing of the head antagonist vampiress with an almost sidekick-like partner called Ilona (Andrea Rau- her accent is one of the many great things about this movie). Elisabeth and Ilona are supposed to resemble classic actresses Marlene Dietrich and Louise Brooks, respectively. Louise Brooks was also an inspiration to Guido Crepax’s erotic, surreal comic character Valentina, and so, when observing Ilona and Elisabeth together, side by side, Ilona’s jet-black bobbed haircut and Elisabeth’s witchy funeral mourner look, one cannot help being reminded of Baba Yaga, the comic, film, and TV episode (this might be a little farfetched, but I like to see it as Valentina had she not been able to escape Baba Yaga’s influence…).




On the other side of the coin, we have the two main human characters, the newlyweds, Stefan (John Karlen) and Valerie (Danielle Ouimet - one of the earliest adult film stars from French Canada). Their relationship is unsteady, primarily because Stefan is so unstable. His character is ambiguous, and he shows many signs of having an affinity for violence, a violence that he eventually releases on his wife.




The scene where Stefan whips Valerie with a belt is intense and a turning point to the movie. It occurs after a bizarre moment when Stefan, who had been procrastinating calling his "mother," finally calls her, after Valerie’s constant insistence, to tell his “mother” about his new wife. This is one of the weirder parts in the movie, as Stefan’s mother is not what we were expecting. The phone call does not go well, and Stefan “punishes” Valerie for whatever humiliation he just went through. The outburst is filmed from outside the hotel windows, giving it a voyeuristic impression. Most remarkable is the aftermath shot of the couple lying on the bed, in what Kümel described as being emblematic of the ash figures of Pompeii.




The three things I remembered most about this movie after seeing it for the first time was the vivid and prominent use of the color red, Delphine Seyrig’s performance as The Blood Countess, and the “impossible” sex-move Ilona pulls on Stefan during their sex scene together (you have to know what I’m talking about if you’ve seen this – it looks very painful but is still a turn-on).

In most of the scenes there’s usually a central or singular red object, such as Stefan’s robe or Elisabeth’s gown, contrasted against everything else. It’s obviously very emblematic of blood, although the red items are usually brighter than blood, but they always stand out while still feeling properly integrated into the scenes, which frequently have black, white, and red color combinations. The intro and ending credits have a very simple but effective plain red background that goes well with the chills that are prompted by the movie’s creepy yet seductive music theme.



  
Delphine Seyrig, like Richard Johnson in Fulci’s Zombie, out-acts everyone else, but it actually works in favor of the movie, because it parallels her character’s control and manipulation of the other characters and course of events, in favor of her sociopathic objectives. Seyrig’s performance is one-of-a-kind and should be savored. Everything about her, from her soothing voice to her look and personality, is like dark poetry. Pay attention to every syllable she softly utters, her gentle but ominous demeanor, her mannerisms and poses, it’s so very beautifully gothic and evil.




There is something very eerie about how vacant the seaside hotel in this movie is. It only contains the four characters, plus the hotel concierge (Paul Esser), and a retired, suspicious policeman (Georges Jamin). That’s it; there are no other characters at the hotel, unless you count the stairway that plays a major role in the hotel interior, filmed in Brussels at the Hotel Astoria, while the hotel exteriors where shot in Ostend at the Grand Hotel des thermes.

Unusual for a European film at the time, the movie has direct-sound, meaning no dubbing, which should be an interest to those who can't get past dubbing.




One could say the film is light on vampire action, and the blood drinkers are fangless, but this is most certainly beside the point, as it is way more about the enjoyably languid mood, erotic images, and suggestive vampiric iconography. Elisabeth’s relations to Ilona and Valerie are so warm and tender but virulent at the same time. The kills are what one could call unlikely and fabricated, but I do think this was the intention. Recalling what Stefen said to Elisabeth, “Death seems to follow you,” the death scenes seem supernaturally driven as if delivered by The Reaper himself, or, more fitting in this case, herself.

It doesn’t break a whole lot of rules, but Daughters of Darkness still stands out as a wonderful erotic vampire film. While watching it, you might still learn a few new things about vampires. Did you know that vampires are afraid of running water? 

© At the Mansion of Madness


   

14 comments:

  1. Wonderful, just wonderful! This one is probably my favourite of this sort of film- as much as I love Rollin and Franco this one just has that extra touch of class. Excellent observation re: Crepax too.

    On another note there is an excellent Eurocult documentary that was produced by the BBC a couple of years back called (I think): Horror Europa. The presenter, League of Gentlemen star Mark Gattiss, singles out Daughters of Darkness as his favourite Euro-horror.

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    1. Hey Nigel! I’m glad you appreciated it. I’ve wanted to review this one for a long time. I remember you expressing your admiration for it in your review for The Iron Rose on Pickled Cinema. I agree that Daughters of Darkness has to be the classiest of its coeval entries. Thanks for telling me about Horror Europa; I just came across it on YouTube and will be looking at it soon.

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    2. Another vote here for HORROR EUROPA. Not a classic, as such things go, but definitely worth your time. Gatiss also did a three-parter (of which HORROR EUROPA is sort of a sequel) called A HISTORY OF HORROR that's worth a look too.

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  2. Great write-up. I've heard of this film for quite a while but I never knew what it was about. I've only ever known Delphine Seyrig in Last Year in Marienbad, she's almost unrecognizable here! Hopefully I can get around to watching this, the title is very alluring as is the story. Nice reference to Valentina btw ;)

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    1. Thanks Terence! Daughters of Darkness seems to be an overall favorite for many, something I didn’t know before putting this article together. I’d say if you like Vampyros Lesbos then there’s a good chance you’ll dig DoD. I haven’t seen Delphine Seyrig in anything else but this one. Last Year at Marienbad sounds very intriguing and exquisite. There’s some curious stuff I’ve been meaning to check out that you’ve covered over at Chicks with Candles, such as the Tim Burton Hansel and Gretel, The Room, and those films with Shelley Duvall that I hadn't heard of. I think I’ve only seen her in Popeye, The Shining, and a movie with Hulk Hogan: Suburban Commando, lol!

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  4. There's a great moment when the hotel concierge is talking to the Countess and clearly recognizes her from a previous visit when he was very young, yet she hasn't aged at all. But singling out individual great moments (the one you vidcapped of the Countess embracing Karlen is another) is almost a disservice to the rest of the film, which is filled with them. This is an exceptionally good film, one that certainly belongs in the top tier of horror pictures, and that it never makes anyone's "top" list makes it criminally underrated.

    A solid write up. Earns only one demerit: for bringing up a Fulci. ;)

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    1. Thank you, J.

      I agree! There’s so many great moments, I tried my best to not single out too much, but the scene I singled out where Stefan “punishes” his wife probably wouldn’t be considered a great moment; it’s a sick moment but a powerful one that impresses me and is the point where Stefan becomes an antagonist.

      It’s so stylish, and quality wise, DoD belongs at the top of the list of sexy European vampire films from the ‘70s, and it manages to be a surprisingly coherent art house picture as well. Yet incoherent art house like Franco’s Succubus can be of high quality as well.

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  5. jervaise brooke hamsterJuly 21, 2014 at 3:04 AM

    I want to bugger Delphine Seyrig (as the bird was in 1950 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously).

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  6. It took two tries for Daughters Of Darkness to click with me. The second time was on a lazy, rainy Sunday afternoon. I believe the languid pace of the day just put me in the right frame of mind. I enjoyed it immensely on the second go round. Great post, but I expect nothing less now. lol

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    1. Hi Brandon! Many thanks for the support! It was similar with me in that I liked it better the second time around. That happens to me a lot actually. Sometimes I have trouble even remembering much of certain movies, after the first run. I think this is a side effect of being able to get a hold of so many of these movies so readily nowadays, and the Eurocult film world has turned out to be bigger than I had ever imagined it. Perhaps one of the reasons I write a lot of these articles is so that I’ll never forget them.

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  7. You know, I actually own this one. Got it in a big ebay lot and held on to it cause I wanted to see Blood Spattered Bride. But I never actually watched this one. And really, the only reason is cause I find the actresses to have really ugly hair. Yeah, I know, not a good reason not to watch a movie. But for me a big factor of this kind of film is eyecandy.

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    1. I finally got around to watching this one. I enjoyed it, even with all the bad hair! ha.

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