At this point, there are roughly 6.85 billion vampire movies in existence since the beginning of cinema and those bloodsuckers remain popular even now. But not every movie about the ages-old monsters is like Dracula or Twilight, naturally, because vampires are one of the most versatile of all screen monsters. They can be anything, usually, from nasty-faced beasts to young men with psychological problems. Or, and this is often the case, they can be the social elite who use their status and their evil abilities to retain their youth and influence. One of the most interesting vampire movies I’ve seen in a long time is in this last camp. Made in Belgium, shot in English, and much more about sinister machinations and betrayal than gore, Daughters of Darkness is a fascinating and spooky film.
Made in 1971, Daughters of Darkness feels a lot more like Nicolas Roeg’s thriller Don’t Look Now than anything Hammer was making at the time. Set in an off-season Belgian seaside resort hotel, the film has a very small cast and a relatively low body count, but it has an air of gloom and doom and strange surrealism permeating the entire film. Director Harry Kümel used historical events of real so-called vampires and weaved them in with a story about very disturbed individuals who seem perfectly happy at first but then their true proclivities come to the surface when a vampire countess and her familiar.
At the beginning of the film, we’re introduced to a pair of newlyweds, Stefan (John Karlen) and Valerie (Danielle Ouimet), in the throes of passion while on a train. They seem very much in love. They eventually get to a hotel in the coastal town of Ostend, Belgium, which is in the winter and hence, though grand, is empty. Stefan is a wealthy Englishman, who went to school in America, and is worried about introducing his new bride to his mother because she is of lower (Swiss) blood. Valerie insists and Stefan finds excuses either not to go visit Mother or not to call and tell her the good news. All the while, news in the town and neighboring cities is of young girls who have been found dead, drained of their blood. Stefan is strangely affected by this, though we don’t know immediately why.
After the sun goes down, two more guests check into the hotel: the Hungarian Countess Bathory (Delphine Seyrig) and her “secretary” Ilona (Andrea Rau). The hotel’s lone employee, a middle-aged concierge, seems to remember the Countess from his youth…but that couldn’t possibly be the same woman, right? A retired detective (Georges Jamin) is also poking around, saying that the deaths of the girls remind him of other murders he investigated back in his youth. The Countess and Ilona are, of course, lesbian vampires and the Countess wants nothing more than to corrupt and recruit the young couple.
The presence of the Countess and Ilona—who are both very attractive—causes the young couple to begin to act differently. Stefan is clearly enamored of Ilona and it brings out his sadistic side toward Valerie, including a rough scene where he whips her with his belt before making love. Valerie wants nothing to do with the Countess, she’s a pure spirit, but the Countess eventually endears herself to the girl, while Ilona seduces Stefan. Ilona recognizes the vampirism as a curse and wants to die, though she needs to feed and remains loyal to the Countess. Stefan, accidentally, kills Ilona while attempting to bring her into the shower with him (running water is traditionally very deadly to vampires) and Valerie and the Countess return in time to see the aftermath, leading to the film’s climax wherein the three hide the dead body and Valerie has to choose between her now-abusive and domineering husband and an unending life of murder and bloodsucking.
This movie is intensely fascinating for a number of reasons. Stefan is clearly a very repressed and angry individual, who is scared of disappointing Mother. The most shocking scene in the film comes when he finally calls Mother at the behest of Valerie and we see the butler bring the phone into a lavish greenhouse where Mother is lounging in a hammock. The camera pans and we see that Mother is actually a man (Fons Rademakers) in foppish makeup. Mother is very disappointed in Stefan for getting married to this girl, and we’re never sure if there’s something untoward going on between Stefan and Mother beyond just a massive domineering streak. It’s strange, and never fully explored, which gives it all the more meaning.
The character of Elizabeth Bathory is based on a real woman,—a Hungarian noblewoman who lived from 1560 to 1614. She holds the Guinness World Record of being the most prolific female murderer, killing as many as 650 young girls and bathing in their blood as a means of staying young. Naturally, she was the basis for a great many vampire stories, including the Hammer film Countess Dracula which also came out in 1971, though was much more salacious and less interesting. In order to give the Countess in this film a strange timeless quality, Delphine Seyrig’s hair and garb was deliberately made to look like Marlene Dietrich while Andrea Rau’s was deliberately made to look like Louise Brooks. Seyrig especially gives a very haunting and seductive performance where she never has to disrobe or perform in any sex scenes in order to throughout give off extreme sexual power in any given scene. It’s a battle between the base sadism of Stefan and the erudite decadence of Bathory.
Daughters of Darkness lacks the violence and gore of many of its vampire contemporaries but ends up being exceedingly more troubling and interesting. The vampires are shown to be the evils of high-society, the excesses of Western aristocracy turned into blood rituals. Countess Bathory isn’t depicted as deviant because she’s a lesbian but rather because she manipulates and corrupts the youth of the world for her own use. Ilona isn’t her friend but her slave, and Valerie isn’t a love interest but a prize to be won. It’s a strange, troubling, and thought-provoking movie. And hey, it’s got vampires in it. Win-win.