A musing on Harry Kumel’s elegant, erotic vampire masterpiece
Ever since Gloria Holden first made ghoulish goo-goo eyes at her girl victims in 1936s Dracula’s Daughter, horror films have been fascinated by the lesbian vampire. Blame J. Sheridan LeFanu, the Irish writer whose risqué short story Carmilla broke the boundaries of homo-erotic bloodsucking and whose taboo allure helped eventually launch this evolving spate of increasingly explicit dark fantasy pictures, many of which reared their horny heads in the considerably more liberal 1970s. UK horror studio Hammer were the first ones to really make their muff munching mark with Roy Ward Baker’s LeFanu adaptation The Vampire Lovers and other films, like Jose Laraz’s almost hardcore 1974 melodrama Vampyres and Vincente Aranda’s The Blood Spattered Bride continued to push the envelope, mixing fangwork with female nudity to grand (and grandly exploitative) effect.
But there’s one incredible film that always gets lumped in with those lower brow sex-soaked exploitation pictures. A movie that, while ostensibly playing by the rules of the erotic Sapphic vampire picture, is actually something far more elegant, kinky, exotic, sinister and sophisticated. I speak of course about Belgian director Harry Kumel’s grinning, impossibly Gothic and hypnotically sensual 1971 melodrama/morality tale Daughters of Darkness, a wicked and quintessentially European exercise in intelligent, witty wordplay and stylish filmmaking and one of the most cynical cinematic musings on male/female relations the horror genre has ever offered us.
The film opens, appropriately, on a speeding train, as Francois de Roubaix’s brilliantly throbbing, trippy jazz/post-mod rock score saturates a scene of carnal coupling between newlyweds Stefan (Dark Shadows star John Karlen) and Valerie (French Canadian erotic starlet Danielle Ouimet). After this intense sequence, we learn that these two lovers have met and married after a recent whirlwind courtship and don’t really know each other very well at all. Before Daughters of Darkness’s lurid narrative runs its course, theyll have rectified that social problem for the worse.
The couple wind up the sole guests in a looming, off-season hotel in picturesque Ostend where they make love, eat, talk and where Stefan nervously avoids Valerie’s urgings to call his mother and tell her about their nuptials. At this point, though we can’t quite put our finger on it, Kumel manages to create a genuine sense of menace and unease; why is Stefan afraid of making a phone call to his mother? What is he hiding from the sweet and naïve Valerie? Read on …
Suddenly a car pulls up to the hotel and out steps an elegant woman and her traveling companion. She’s the Countess Elizabeth Bathory (the ravishing French film icon Delphine Seyrig), an elegant, smooth, smiling and charming aristocrat who is also checking in to the remote hotel. Upon seeing the young, fresh-faced (and lithe bodied) Stefan and Valerie, Bathory immediately befriends them, slowly seducing and manipulating their affections in what appears to be an attempt to pry the beautiful Valerie away from her increasingly brutish man.
As the serpentine narrative weaves along, we learn that Bathory is in fact the legendary Hungarian Blood Countess, a real historical figure who bled thousands of virgins to death in order to maintain a glowing, youthful appearance. Only now, Bathory’s become a kind of love-starved, sexually charged, immortal vagabond vampire, in town looking for a replacement for her increasingly melancholy mate Ilona (the better-than-perfect German model and soft porn star Andrea Rau). And, as both Stefan and we the audience quickly learn, this is a woman who always gets what she wants.
Daughters of Darkness is a pitch-perfect exercise in mood, tone and tension and, if youre willing to let it work you over, it casts a slick, strange and chilly spell that sticks long after the screen has faded to red. It also has a wicked sense of black humor. In one of the pictures most disturbing and uncomfortably hilarious sequences, Stefan, for all his brutish, Stanley Kowalski-gone-Eurotrash macho bravado, is revealed to be a closet (and apparently kept) homosexual. When he finally makes his reluctant call to ”mother”, the domineering matriarch turns out to be a decadent, older, lipstick wearing dandy (brilliantly played by the actor/director Fons Rademakers), one who dryly scolds the younger man for doing something as unrealistic as marrying a woman. This bizarrely funny episode is followed shortly thereafter by a darker scene in which Stefan obsessively snakes himself through a crowd in Bruges to see the body of a viciously murdered woman and, when Valerie attempts to pull her apparently necrophiliac husband away, he hits her, knocking her to the ground. What horrors await this unsuspecting girl in her marriage into Stefan’s sinister family the audience can only guess
The driving theme behind Daughters of Darkness initially appears to be a feminist one, with the soft spoken lesbian vampire Bathory liberating Valerie from the oppression of her potentially dangerous husband. But really, Valerie is just being manipulated by another, far more lethal and selfish predator. And that’s the real force behind the film; a shadowy, cruel amorality that is as icy and reptilian as it is both appealing and amusing.
Visually, Kumel’s picture is breathtaking, with its gorgeous cast, authentic European locales, fluid camera work and elegant use of the color red (the film’s original title was actually Les Levres Rouges, or The Red Lips). And though it does unofficially belong to that aforementioned cannon of 70s lesbovamp pictures, it’s not only an infinitely more evolved piece of cinema than say, Jess Franco’s groovy and voyeuristic Vampyros Lesbos, it also keeps the vampire shtick to a minimum. Nary a fang is revealed and blood is consumed only once, in the balletic last reel sequence that smacks of a quasi-crucifixion metaphor. And if we are to read it that way, suddenly, the film is even further removed from any sort of feminist-leaning than we thought. That thematic ambiguity simply adds another layer of fascination.
This is one of my favorite movies of all time and though some may see it as a dash pretentious, I’ll be damned if I can find anything wrong with it on any level. It’s seductive and addictive. It’s pure cinema as gauzy, sensual dream. Perhaps I’m blinded by this love, but any movie that features a central menace as effortlessly arresting as Delphine Seyrig (its been noted that her portrayal of Bathory somewhat channels the chilly purr of Marlene Dietrich) locks itself into my heart for life.