Stefan (John Karlen) and Valerie (Danielle Ouimet), a good-looking young couple who have eloped, stay in an out-of-season hotel in rain-swept, depopulated Ostend. They are not exactly on honeymoon, just pausing in this luxurious yet faded interzone before the supposedly British Stefan, who has neither an English name or an English accent, takes his new bride home to his aristocratic mother – who, as we see in a cutaway shot, is a man in a dress (Fons Rademakers). Stefan also takes his belt to his wife during lovemaking, and shows signs of other kinks unusual in the clean-cut leading man of a horror movie – compare young bridegrooms in everything from The Black Cat (1934) to The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) for exemplars of straight values. The only other guests in the hotel are the Countess Elisabeth Bathory (Delphine Seyrig) and her pouting, tempting secretary Ilona (Andrea Rau). The aged clerk (Paul Esser) and a retired policeman (Georges Jamin) are certain that the Countess was here before, too many years ago for her apparent age, and is mixed up with unsolved murders that have left blood-drained corpses behind…
Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness is an unusual horror film, depicting vampirism (and lesbianism) as a reasonable alternative to stifling or perverse male desires. It’s cine-literate, casting Seyrig for her association with art cinema from Last Year at Marienbad (L’année dernière à Marienbad, set in another hotel in limbo) and dressing and coiffing her like 1930s Marlene Dietrich. But it’s also creepily, delicately sophisticated, with a witty, evocative score by Francois de Roubaix and an interesting, unusual set of monstrous mannerisms. The Countess shimmers in a silver sheath dress and shows white, white teeth in her red, red mouth and waves a feather boa like the fronds of a poison anemone to attract the young couple into her coils in a distant echo of Dracula’s victim-enveloping cloak. Bathory is named for the Hungarian mass murderess (who may have been framed) and recurrent film character, and Seyrig seethes sexually as she recounts the atrocities committed by her supposed ancestress, which excites the sneakily sadistic Stefan.
There are moments of unsettling physical horror – Ilona’s death, bleeding out in a shower after a blunder with a straight razor, foreshadows the death by running water of Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame) in Hammer’s Dracula AD 1972 (1972) – but also of black farce and high-end erotica. For some unknown reason, a clutch of seemingly unrelated films told very similar stories in the early 1970s: Stephanie Rothman’s The Velvet Vampire (1971), Vicente Aranda’s The Blood-Spattered Bride (La novia ensangrentada, 1972), Richard Blackburn’s Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (1973) and José Larraz’s Vampyres (1974) all likewise revolve around vampire matriarchs seducing innocent girls away from lumpen men. These are films which exercise a vampire-like power of fascination. Far more steadily paced than the vigorous Hammer Gothics, likely to get distracted by some apparently minor element of art direction or costuming, and alert to the erotic potential of teeth against skin in a self-aware manner, they show the vampire genre had evolved to the point when films were being made by artists who knew what they were doing rather than directors perhaps unconsciously channelling the dreams and desires of their audiences.
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