This review originally appeared on the old Wordpress site on October 15, 2017 as part of the annual Countdown to Halloween.
After reading and hearing about Daughters of Darkness (1971) for many years, I have now finally seen it… and I'm glad about that. Although it isn't as lurid as I imagined it would be, it's still one very sexy early-70s horror movie. It rises above many others like it because director Harry Kumel uses restraint. The sex scenes are not gratuitous. They contribute to the haunting mood of the movie and actually make the horror more impactful.
Kumel wrote the "scenario" with Pierre Druout. However, there's an additional credit for Jean Ferry for "dialogue, I assume because it's a Belgian film shot in English language. Whatever combination of creators behind the scenes, Daughters of Darkness features some interesting and complex characters on screen that elevate the simple plot of a newlywed couple becoming involved in a tempestuous relationship with two vampires.
First up is Stefan, played by John Karlen, who was Willie Loomis in Dark Shadows. If not filmed following the end of its run in 1971, it must have been near its end. He's terrific here, playing a young man who's very much in love with his wife, but for some unknown reason is adamant about not introducing her to his mother. He has big mood swings and goes from making passionate love to his wife one minute to smacking her around a little the next.
His wife, Valerie, is played by Danielle Ouimet, a long-haired blonde whose natural beauty stands in contrast to the more exotic beauty of the vampires. She pressures Stefan to, if not introduce her to his mother, at least go visit her to prepare her for the idea that her son has gotten married. She's a strong character. When Stefan smacks her around a little, she immediately packs her bags. She won't be the typical victim by the time the whole thing is over.
The vampire "queen," if you will, is none other than Countess Elizabeth Bathory, the historical female counterpart of Vlad the Impaler, played by Delphine Seyrig. We don't know if her character in this movie has lived since the year 1560, but we do know she's looked exactly the same for over 40 years. The hotel concierge recognizes her from a visit when he was a child. She's got a 1920's vibe to her appearance, but a late 1960 hippie's view on sexuality.
Her travelling companion and friend (with benefits, I believe) is Ilona, played by Andrea Rau. She's more of a victim than Valerie is. She'd like to get out of the relationship, but Elizabeth makes it next to impossible. Ultimately, she's expendable and easily replaced by the next shiny object that catches Elizabeth's eye. Her fate is perhaps more unexpected and emotional in Daughters of Darkness than that of any of its other characters.
I was as mesmerized by Elizabeth as Stefan was in a scene where she seductively tells him about the atrocities of the original Countess in front of Valerie. To say the least, it's inappropriate public behavior for her to be touching and feeling Stefan as she does. Valerie screams as if she's in a vacuum; neither Elizabeth nor Stefan responds to her pleas for them to stop. This event starts the snowball of terror rolling and it doesn't stop until it explodes when it reaches the end.
While the various combinations of characters in situations both sexual and chaste are uncomfortable, it's nothing compared to a revelation about Stefan's mother. It's an unexpected jolt when you see… her. She scolds him for marrying Valerie, "What you did wasn’t foolish; it was unrealistic. When she hears about us..." What in the world does that mean?!? This surprise adds another layer to Stefan's character and perhaps helps explain his erratic behavior.
Don't think that Daughters of Darkness is just a twisted European art film. There's nothing esoteric about the vampire mythos here. Elizabeth and Ilona have no reflection in mirrors and can't be exposed to sunlight, just like any bargain basement bloodsucker. These elements aren't emphasized, though; no fangs are bared. It's as if the fact that they're vampires is secondary to the fact that they're complicated women. The relationships are fascinating; the horror is icing on the cake.
Written by Pierre Drouot & Harry Kumel
Directed by Harry Kumel
Starring Delphine Seyrig, John Karlen, Danielle Qoimet, Andrea Rau
RT 100 min.
Released May 28, 1971 (New York City)
Home Video Blue Underground (Blu-ray)