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Daughters of Darkness is a stylish, cold, and sinister meditation on sex, compliancy, and vampirism. It has long had a cult following of moviegoers who appreciated the movie's art house coolness and its horrific undercurrents. Unlike so many vampire movies, it completely avoids fixating on fangs and bare necks. In fact, not once in the movie will you see any fangs at all. Instead, Daughters of Darkness takes us on a quiet-but-brutal atmospheric journey that concentrates more on the characterizations than it does on the paraphernalia of vampire movies.
Now, thanks to Anchor Bay Entertainment, we can enjoy this movie in a letterboxed (1.66:1), director's cut version that has been restored to the movie's original length of 100 minutes. This is the version of the movie that was originally released in Europe. American versions have long been truncated to just 87 minutes. So this video release is a major find for lovers of bizarre cinema.
The hypnotically beautiful Delphine Seyrig stars as Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who may or may not be the infamous "Scarlet Countess" herself who bathed in the blood of 300 virgins to maintain her youth (c. Hungary in the 16th and 17th centuries). Seyrig (who also starred in the equally unusual Last Year in Marienbad) wears feathers and sequined outfits. She is soft and feminine, with a beguiling smile that will turn the knees weak of both men and women. But exactly how old is she? When she arrives at a seaside hotel in Belgium, the concierge immediately recognizes her: "Madam looks exactly like a lady who must have changed a great deal since," he says. "My mother perhaps?" she says. She is accompanied by a stunningly sensual young lady (Andrea Rau) with large eyes, pouty lips, and a Dutch bob haircut (reminiscent of silent film star Louise Brooks). Soon after the Countess steps inside the hotel, she sees a newlywed couple in the hotel's restaurant: "Look how perfect they are," she says, and she smiles, an intoxicating smile, that is never ironic, always genuine. Later she tells the couple: "I can't tell you how completely happy I am to have you here tonight. You are both so perfect. So good-looking. So sweet." She's a little too happy to see them, a little too willing to ingratiate herself with these strangers, and we know that spells trouble for the newlyweds.
John Karlen (who played Willie in the TV horror/soap opera Dark Shadows) stars as the husband, Stefan, and Daniele Ouimet (a former Miss Canada) stars as the wife, Valerie. They have troubles of their own, as we see in the movie's first scene of dialogue. Lying in bed together aboard a train, Valerie asks Stefan "Do you love me?"
He says, "No . . . and you?" and he smirks. He's just playing, but it's a mean-spirited brand of playfulness. We immediately start to dislike him. And those fears become realized when Stefan goes berserk upon seeing the body of a murder victim. He struggles against the other passersby to get a closer look, even striking Valerie in the process.
"I'm frightened," says Valerie.
"Frightened? Of what?" says Stefan.
"Of you. . . . I know what I saw."
"Come on. I was just looking like everybody else. Like you."
"Don't lie to yourself. You were pleased. It gave you pleasure. You actually enjoyed seeing that dead girl's body."
Stefan explains it by saying " . . . we're getting to know each another," and the always-compliant Valerie accepts his explanation. Immediately afterwards she tries to unbutton his pants--this is how they communicate best, in the throes of passion--but he brushes her hands away.
The roots of Stefan's problems are buried deep. He promises to call his mother and tell her about the marriage, but his reticence makes us suspicious. "She already hates you without even knowing you exist," he tells Valerie. And when he finally does call "mother," [SPOILERS coming] we find him talking to a flaming homosexual who says, "What you did wasn't foolish. . . . It was merely unrealistic. . . . Whatever on earth would we do with her?" (referring to Valerie). The undercurrents of violence in Stefan's psyche erupt soon afterwards in a shocking scene where Stefan beats Valerie with a belt.
Much of the movie takes place in a huge ornate hotel, empty except for the concierge and the four lead characters. The off-season has driven off the vacationers, leaving the hotel's huge, cavernous rooms and stairways empty, creating an eerie atmosphere of echoes and portentous voids. Meanwhile, the Countess and her companion stroke each other like old lovers and stare longingly at the newlyweds. "Patience," says the Countess. "Patience."
Daughters of Darkness becomes dangerously pretentious with its carefully modulated atmosphere. But the hotel is such a truly strange, otherworldly environment that the filmmakers' art house pretensions never become a liability. If you go into the movie expecting to find bloody fangs, brandished crucifixes, and wooden stakes, you'll probably be disappointed. Daughters of Darkness is little concerned with the old vampire lore. A Van Helsing-type does indeed arrive at the hotel--and he immediately notices that the Countess casts no reflection in a mirror--but he's only there so the filmmakers can once again upset our expectations. He's more of an irritant than a genuine threat to the Countess. She treats him brusquely, as if he's a party crasher and later as he's pedaling a bicycle, she runs him off the road with her car.
Daughters of Darkness is a small masterpiece of chilly atmosphere; however, director Harry Kumel tends to botch the movie's requisite violent scenes. In one of the movie's most inventive scenes, Stefan becomes involved with the Countess's companion, Ilona. After they have sex, he showers while she steps to the doorway and watches. But she can't enter the shower--remember what running water does to vampires? However, Stefan doesn't realize she's a vampire, [SPOILERS coming] so he grabs her and tries to pull her into the shower. She screams and struggles, her eyes opened wide in terror. It's a great scene, but Kumel nearly ruins it by devising a ludicrous death-by-razor-blade ending. The shower water promised to be a witty and humorous way of killing off Ilona, but she breaks free from Stefan, accidentally grabs a razor, tucks it behind her, and falls on the blade. Stefan's death is equally absurd, involving a glass dish that breaks in two, with each half neatly slicing his wrists. And the Countess's death by impalement is so fortuitous that it seems an afterthought. Director Kumel's complete disinterest in the death scenes is a disappointment and it mars an otherwise intoxicating movie.
Even with its serious flaws, Daughters of Darkness is well worth seeing. Delphine Seyrig delivers one of the great horror film performances. In one of the movie's highlights, she begins to caress Stefan as he tells the story of the "Scarlet Countess": "She hung them [young women virgins] up by their wrists and whipped them until their tortured flesh was torn to shed." The Countess begins to complete his sentences, reveling in the tale of "beautiful red blood." She closes her eyes in ecstasy while Stefan writhes and moans. But the Countess is actually interested in Stefan's wife. Later she tells her, "You must be nice to me. Soon you will love me as I love you now," she says to Valerie, and then she smiles, one of the great smiles in the history of horror cinema.
Daughters of Darkness is available on video from Anchor Bay Entertainment in a letterboxed print (1.66:1) that restores the movie to its original length of 100 minutes. Suggested retail price: $14.95.