DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS (HARRY KUMEL, 1971)
After my initial viewing of Daughters of Darkness several years ago, before I had fully identified myself as an utter film enthusiast, and before I had figured out the exact type of film that would become my favorite (being the types of films I've discussed here), I realized that what I had just watched was an intelligent, beautiful, astounding masterpiece. I was blown away by the impact that the film had on me, but I wasn't sure why. Up until that point my film viewing history has consisted of mainly watching average horror movies and canonical art house fare; this movie turned out to take the best from each 'genre' and combine them so perfectly-- it was this movie that lead to me seeking out more "art house horror movies," it was this film that (thankfully) lead me to where I am today!
The plot of the film is an elaborately constructed fever dream, and much more rewarding when it unfolds for the viewer unexpectedly, so I won't go into too much detail here. The film begins by introducing the viewer to Stefan and Valerie, a young couple who were recently married after not knowing each other for very long. The two are traveling from Switzerland to England so Valerie can meet Stefan's "mother," but end up staying in Ostend before they leave. In Ostend, they stay at a decadent, large, and empty hotel, and before long a mysterious woman by the name of Elizabeth Bathory and her assistant Ilona end up in the same hotel.
As soon as the mysterious women arrive at the hotel, the tension that has thus far been building between Stefan and Valerie almost explodes; Valerie is insistent upon Stefan's mother knowing about his marriage, but Stefan seems to be terrified by his mother and her "aristocratic" values. The Countess also seems to have an intense interest in the young couple, as as the days and nights unfold her motives appear more and more specific.
On a day trip to neighboring town, Stefan and Valerie encounter a crime scene decorated by passerbys-- the body of a young woman has been found, dead, without a trace of blood. As the body is carried to the ambulance Stefan becomes utterly entranced, violently pushing Valerie aside when she asks him to leave. The body is the fourth found in the area, all of the bodies utterly drained of blood. Whether or not the Countess Bathory, with her heritage leading back to the sadistic Erzebet Bathory, has anything to do with the deaths becomes clearer as the film progresses.
The film ends up becoming a magnificent vampire film with hardly any of the motifs that repeatedly pop up in most vampire related flicks. Kumel masterfully throws in a few symbolic signifiers to implicate the Countess as a vampire, but the weight of the story doesn't rely on mere gimmicks. The film is deeply saturated in colors, mostly consisting of the deep red (everywhere from clothing to cars to the lips of Delphine Seyrig's Countess) and an epic blue (the sky, the ocean bordering the hotel). The contrast between the two primary colors is utterly striking, and helps to visually extend the tension that is present in the plot.
The film also contains very little cut scenes, choosing instead to linger on the situations that are occurring, coupled with brilliant tracking shots that reveal more and more details and clues to the film as they move along. The visuals are also accompanied by a brilliant score from François de Roubaix that is both sexually swanky, tense, and atmospheric at the same time. It matches the visuals so perfectly that I couldn't even begin to imagine any other music with what's on screen.
But aside from a brilliant plot, sense of visuals, and musical score, the element that makes this film stand out so far above many is it's tone and sense of atmosphere. For an example of a single scene that elevates the movie to an utter masterpiece, look no farther than the scene in which Stefan and Valeria return from Bruges, which serves as the initial introduction between the young couple and the Countess. Sitting in an elegantly upholstered arm chair, sipping a turquoise martini, the countess eventually moves behind Stefan, sensually rubbing his chest while the two intensely recount the details of the story of Erzebet Bathory-- the camera slowly zooms in, interrupted only by Valerie screaming "Stop!" while the music heightens-- the scene alone is worth the price of admission, so to speak.
There are countless subtleties to the film that not only heighten the atmosphere, but also extend the psycho-sexual story of Stefan and Valerie's relationship into something truly worthwhile. The film, in actuality, has the relationship more at it's core than the vampires that help to extend these ideas. It's almost safe to say that the vampires are symbolic, but doing so would over look much of what makes the film a success.
This film is truly deserving of a more serious study (for instance, I haven't even touched upon the issue of masculinity and Stefan's "mother"), and one day I hope that study gets written, whether by me or someone else. Until then I will leave you with this, hopefully inspiring those who have yet to check out the film to give it a chance, and possibly to give those who have only half-heartedly seen the film to pay a lot more attention.
For more information on Jean Ferry, screenwriter for the film, head on over to Ombres Blanches for a detailed overview of the authors life.