"Let the dead bury the dead."—Countess Elizabeth Bathory (Delphine Seyrig)
Newlywed Stefan (John Karlen) needs any excuse he can muster to avoid introducing his bride Valerie (Danielle Ouimet) to mother, especially since Valerie has no clue that "mother" is a gay sugardaddy and her new husband is a closet sadist. Fortunately for Stefan, the couple gets conveniently stranded in the Flemish seaside resort of Ostende, in an elegant but deserted hotel.
Or at least, it might have been fortunate, had that sleek red sedan not pulled up. The sculpted blonde (Delphine Seyrig) inside, sliding like an imperious Marlene Dietrich, immediately strikes fear in the concierge. He has seen her before—40 years ago, looking exactly the same as she does now. Her name is Elizabeth Bathory. Death follows in her wake.
Elizabeth Bathory was born in 1560, a daughter of Hungarian nobility in an era when religious and political conflict was commonplace. Caught between Turks and Hapsburgs, Protestants and Catholics, Austrians and Slovaks, the Bathory family required its progeny to become monsters merely to hold together their tiny corner of Europe. And it was always worse for the women: one must become cruel—crueler than the men around—in order to avoid any signs of weakness, of benign femininity. The more powerful a woman becomes, the more the rumors fly that she is in league with evil, with perversion, and with all manner of corruption. Consider the scandalous reputation of Catherine the Great, spread by her political enemies.
Elizabeth Bathory became a monster, legendary for her viciousness toward the peasantry (which was by no means a crime, merely somewhat gauche) and toward other nobles (which most certainly was a crime). While her husband, a prominent count who spent most of his time away at war, lived, Elizabeth was just another "hysterical" woman, tormenting her household staff, often with her husband's approval (and some say his active participation). But when he died in 1604, Elizabeth's excesses became, well, no longer amusing to the Hungarian crown. The stories said—were they true?—that Elizabeth and her female cohorts, with no big, strong man to keep her in line, had gone over the edge: bathing in blood to keep young, participating in perversions of all stripes. By 1610, Elizabeth was on trial, conveniently prosecuted (ostensibly under the crown's direction) by a nearby noble who had his eye on the valuable Bathory land holdings. Needless to say, Elizabeth was convicted and shut up in a room in her own castle until her death in 1614, forgotten by history.
Or so the story goes. In the early 1970s, as interest in historical "vampires" became a popular pastime (spurred by the first books formally connecting the real Vlad Tepes to the literary Dracula), Bathory's story was rediscovered as a prototype "vampire" tale—and promptly made into horror movies. After all, there has always been something curiously appealing, particularly among European horror directors, for lesbian vampires. Go figure. Perhaps it is the notion of feminine power, at once alluring and terrifying, in a culture with a long history of objectifying women. In cinema, this takes on a particular color, as the objectification of the camera becomes a means to eroticize the mysterious woman, the femme fatale, while she continually slips away.
Consider a crucial scene in Harry Kümel's Daughters of Darkness, originally titled Le Rouge aux Lèvres. Ah, those red lips: Countess Bathory's sultry companion, Ilona (Andrea Rau), with her gamine haircut and those pouting lips that make you want to leap into your television screen, slinks into Stefan's bedroom on a mission of seduction. Stefan thinks he has all the power, that he is the object of desire. After all, did he not just exercise his manly authority by beating his new wife in an erotic frenzy? Later, will he not demand that Valerie be returned to his control as if she were a piece of property?
But Stefan is a dupe, a patsy. Bathory wants him seduced and exposed, in order to push Valerie into her arms. Ilona wants Stefan to help her escape the living death she endures as Bathory's slave. And Stefan's own clumsy attempt to exercise control, an act as simple as dragging the struggling Ilona into the shower (and why is she afraid of running water?) backfires in a terrifying fashion—and Stefan makes a fatal error that will eventually cost him everything.
But, even as Ilona's seduction of Stefan can be read as an assault on masculine authority, a would-be predator turned into squirming prey, the scene is also terribly erotic. Kümel skirts the edge of softcore (although this is pretty hot stuff for 1971) as the luscious Ilona moves in on Stefan in her criminally alluring convent school dress, both vulnerable and yet completely aware of her sexual power.
Harry Kümel certainly knows what he is doing. Although known for only two horror movies in an otherwise enigmatic and spotty career (the other, the surreal and gothic Malpertuis is almost unseen outside of Europe), he displays a command of mise en scène that is almost surprising in its ability to fuse clichés of the horror genre with more "classic" cinema. Kümel was a film historian before moving behind the camera, and the references in Daughters of Darkness to Welles, Hitchcock, and especially Joseph von Sternberg (in his films with Marlene Dietrich) are not accidental. The director is hardly derivative however. The film is full of striking images and careful use of color, especially reds. In one elegant overhead shot, Kümel divides the hotel's parlor in half, with empty white chairs on the left and red chairs (in which our principals talk) on the right, drawing our eye toward the games of seduction Bathory and Ilona play with Stefan and Valerie. Later, Kümel creates a memorable image when Bathory unfurls her batwing cape on a promontory, the camera pulls far back, and she envelops Valerie until the hapless girl vanishes.
All this makes Daughters of Darkness fascinating to watch. Fortunately, the film avoids appearing pretentious with liberal doses of sex and violence. And certainly it is impossible, as John Karlen and journalist David Del Valle point out in their commentary track, to make any film in which the lead actress references Dietrich that does not border on camp. Throw in a cartoonish detective (Georges Jamin) with a voyeuristic streak, and you have an art film that clearly does not take itself too seriously. Daughters of Darkness manages to balance all its disparate moods and succeeds as the most entertaining Eurotrash lesbian vampire movie ever made.
The commentary track with Karlen is the only extra carried over from the earlier Anchor Bay DVD of the film. This new Blue Underground release features an anamorphic transfer with a soft and luxurious look befitting, well, a Eurotrash lesbian vampire film. And keeping the commentary track by Dark Shadows star Karlen was an excellent move; with a little prompting from Del Valle, Karlen proves friendly and funny, chatting about the "perversity" of all the characters, the "accidental" artfulness of the production, and his boundless admiration for French superstar Delphine Seyrig (also known for her work with Renais and Buñuel). While he praises Kümel's style, Karlen does admit that the two did not get along on set and that the director was not the nicest person in the world (to put it mildly).
Harry Kümel, in a new commentary track moderated by David Gregory, is much less gossipy and more professional. At times, he comes across as pompous in his cinematic namedropping, and he even dismisses the movie as "trashy" (although he is proud of its success). But the track does prove that there is more craft in even a single scene of Daughters of Darkness than in a dozen other horror movies. Andrea Rau, who still looks pretty good in her 50s, talks in a brief video interview about her transition from Playboy model to movie ingénue. Blue Underground also throws in some radio ads, a photo gallery, and trailer. But they lose points for skipping the subtitles.
In spite of its Cinemax-softcore cover (what happened to the striking psychedelic artwork from the Anchor Bay disc?), Daughters of Darkness is hardly puerile or exploitative. Its trashy surface hides class and wit. If you are one of those people who picked up the original Anchor Bay disc, there is not much reason to upgrade. But Daughters of Darkness is still an undiscovered gem for most horror film fans. Smartly offering some new extras for a low price, Blue Underground makes this second release well worth a look for a film that holds together well over repeat viewings.
Director Harry Kümel is ordered by the court to return to making horror films. Blue Underground is commended for improving on the previous release. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
• Commentary by Harry Kümel
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