[18 March 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Throngs of teens and should-know-better spinsters like to think that vampiric romance began and ended with Stephanie Meyer’s stunted Twilight saga. They want to believe that the only haunted heartthrob is Edward Cullen and that the only melancholy human is the dreary Isabella Swan. Of course, Anne Rice would have a thing or two to say about that crackpot conclusion, but the truth is that all bloodsucker lore has been built around the sexual allure of the living dead. From Bram Stocker laying the foundation in his seminal Dracula to the various movie/media incarnations over the years, the vampire has been touted as the most unusual lover ever. His (or her) power over the mere mortal is the stuff of legend, leading to a mythology both sinister and sexual.
During the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, studios like Hammer tried to find a way to make the monster movie vital to an ever changing counterculture audience. The introduction of gory violence was one way to wake up the genre. The other was adding in abundant nudity and stark sensual content. It was a trend that would spread throughout the rest of foreign filmmaking, allowing erotica to “crossover” to a more mainstream audience. A good example of this ideal is the Vogue magazine like macabre of 1971’s Daughters of Darkness (new to Blu-ray from Blue Underground). Relying on the by now familiar tale of the Countess Bathory and her penchant for bathing in (and drinking) the blood of virgins, we get a slow burn bit of same sex sizzle which sees a hapless newlywed couple falling under the spell of the notorious noble and her lonely lesbian slave.
Stefan (Dark Shadow‘s John Karlen) has just gotten married to “commoner” Valerie (Daniele Oimet), something he is sure his domineering ‘mother’ will not approve of. Considering his wealthy background, and his fear over the loss of same, he decides to hide out in an off season Belgium hotel to enjoy a bit of family-free R&R. While Valerie wants to confront the clan, Stefan is merely happy to play his often perverse B&D bedroom games.
Their stay is suddenly disturbed by the arrival of Countess Bathory (Delphine Seyrig), an ageless beauty with a disturbing dark side. While the hotel staff swear she’s been there before (some 50 years before!), she denies the accusation. Instead, she uses her miserable female valet, Ilona (Andrea Rau) to seduce Stefan so she can get closer to Valerie. In the meantime, the local police are puzzled by a series of gruesome murders, each victim’s body drained completely of blood - just like a series of crimes some..50..years…before.
As a forerunner for such softcore sensations as The Hunger, Daughters of Darkness is not an immediately arresting horror film. There is too much attention to fashion shoot detail and not enough unsettling terror. Director Harry Kümel obviously fancies himself a Dutch Tinto Brass and languishes obsessively over backdrops, settings, and carefully composed vistas. The hotel location is given a grand once over, the fascinating facade making way for an aging elegance inside. Similarly, exteriors like the city of Bruges are presented in pure travelogue style. Kümel even uses a matching approach to his cooperative cast. Karlen and Oimet get a couple of naked romps, while Ms. Seyrig is set inside a series of tasteful tableaus meant to accent her striking allure.
What’s missing, of course, is fear. We never really believe that Bathory is a threat, even when the local police chief implicates her in murders both past and present, and nary a drop of the red stuff arrives until late in the second act. Before that, it’s all carnal cat and mouse, a weird domineering dynamic taking place between the photogenic couple and their equally front page prey. Kümel gets a lot of uneasy mileage out of the various moments between Stefan, Valerie, the Countess, and Ilona, especially given that the main motivation between them is seduction and slaughter. Then, to add an even more unnerving element, the script suggests that our main male lead may have his own unhinged reasons for defying his ‘mom.’
You can also see the influence of Hitchcock during the latter sequences of Daughters of Darkness, a visual motif that would be further explored in the Master’s own Frenzy. Kümel makes creative use of the location, exploiting its isolation and ethereal winter bareness to highlight the primary color passions of the players. Even more so, the movie’s murders use the corporeal shock value of sudden grue to (hopefully) heighten the fear. While we can see where things are going the minute Stefan loses his grip on Valerie, Kümel still finds semi-inventive ways of getting there. The ending leaves enough loose ends and dry denouements to suggest a series, or at the very least, the reason for the Sappho scary movie’s endearing allure.
As part of the HD update, Blue Underground includes a couple of intriguing commentary tracks. The first features Kümel, while the second sees Karlen conversing with journalist David Del Valle. Both are insightful walks through the film, balancing a nostalgic look back with some interesting personal anecdotes. The artist forever known as Willy Loomis suggests that few in the cast could “appreciate” the director’s on-set manner, while the filmmaker finds faults and finery everywhere. A series of interviews with co-stars Rau and Oimet confirm both sides of the story. The rest of the added content guides us through a behind the scenes confessional filled with moviemaking magic and madness. While it may have had its troubles during the day, Daughters of Darkness became an infamous nocturne novelty.
As the genre would move on and mutate into straight out gore and Gothic falderal, iconic ‘70s experiments like Daughters argues for a more adult approach to vampires. Sure, the monster mythos gets little outright discussion here, and some parts of the plot (a fear of water???) suggest a little post-modern manipulation (how else can you explain the need for a near explicit shower sequence?). Still, the ghoulish grace explored was clearly a way of taking what was, at that moment, a decidedly juvenile fear factor and force it to grow up. Sadly, we’ve returned to an even more childish nod to Nosferatu. Like its impact, something like Daughters of Darkness was fine, if fleeting.