By Rod Lott.
If “fun” sounds like an odd word to apply to a Belgium-lensed beaut this art-minded, this patient, the slow burner eventually catches enough fire to earn the distinction.”
Prematurely celebrating its 50th anniversary with a new 4K restoration courtesy of Blue Underground is 1971’s Daughters of Darkness. Directed by Harry Kümel, it’s your typical boy-meets-girl, boy-meets-girl-vampire, girl-meets-other-girl-vampire story, which is to say it’s largely atypical judging from the constraints expected of – and exploited by – genre cinema.
Newlyweds Stefan and Valerie – respectively played by House of Dark Shadows’ John Karlen and Valérie’s Danielle Ouimet – represent the era’s quintessential mod couple. Following elopement, they arrive at Chilton Manor, a sprawling and elegant hotel facing the ocean. Except for the concierge (Paul Esser, the villainous Blom of 1969’s Pippi Longstocking), the place is empty, no doubt thanks to the off-season dearth of tourists, with an assist from a still-unsolved string of slit-throat murders.
Valerie expresses concern her English husband’s mother “will never accept me for who I am” – namely, Swedish. That soon becomes the least of their worries when into the Chilton walks Countess Elizabeth Bathory (Delphine Seyrig of Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad), radiating the luminosity and glamour of Hollywood’s golden age, and her secretary, Ilona (Andrea Rau, Beyond Erotica), donning a complementary Louise Brooks bob.
Just as the concern on Stefan’s face is palpable, it can’t be accidental that upon his (and our) first glimpse of the countess, her face is veiled in a net. However, she’s not the one who’s trapped, but the spider with eyes on doing the trapping; a later shot of her knitting in the center of the hotel lobby makes that eight-legged metaphor clear. In fact, inviting the newlyweds over for drinks, the countess more or less seduces Stefan right under Valerie’s nose – one so perturbed, it unknowingly tweaks the threads of the web.
With more than a nudge from the real-life history of Bathory, we know the true nature of the countess and her secretary; the newlyweds will reach that understanding later, albeit on differing timetables. And as the adage goes, getting there is half the fun. If “fun” sounds like an odd word to apply to a Belgium-lensed beaut this art-minded, this patient, the slow burner eventually catches enough fire to earn the distinction.
For many, that match-to-flame feeling will kick in with Daughters’ most unsettling shot: Ilona perched outside the honeymoon suite. As Valerie opens the window in the dead of night, up pops Ilona, naked as the night is dark. It’s a jump scare today’s viewer will see coming, but Ilona’s reveal is so spring-loaded, so carefully posed, so skillfully cut that your mind fills in gruesome details – clawed hands, feral hissing, et al. – that a frame-advance replay proves aren’t even there. The shot is so effective, it deserves to be iconic — and would, I suspect, if the movie were better known.
Perhaps the only thing more frightening within the hour and a half is how positively Overlookian the hotel seems. The site offers the kind of grand architecture ready-made for such a secluded story – and one (or two, in actuality) the director physically revisits with co-writer/producer Pierre Drouot in a featurette amid the disc’s extras. New to Blue Underground’s generous Ultra HD limited-edition package is a soundtrack CD of François de Roubaix’s score; missing is the previous DVD’s unheralded inclusion of 1972’s The Blood Spattered Bride, as a near-secret bottom half of a lesbian-vampire double bill. (I’d take Vicente Aranda’s film, a Spanish-language adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, over, say, a needlessly lenticular slipcover any day.)
As with his thematically similar Malpertuis that followed his Daughters to theaters in ’71, Kümel isn’t interested in allowing the horror to play out in market-dictated convention, although you’ll notice the occasional concession. It’d be hard not to, with the blood so bright-red it not only upends the movie’s established color palette, but messes with your eyes for several seconds after disappearing from the screen. With style and sustenance accentuated over substance, Daughters of Darkness casts quite the mood, if not quite a complete spell.
Rod Lott runs the genre film website FlickAttack.com from Oklahoma City. A former professional journalist whose film criticism and features were named his state’s best for four years, he has written for Psychotronic Video, Something Weird Video and numerous books, including the forthcoming Flick Attack Movie Arsenal.