Daughters of Darkness
The breakdown of the studio system and the rise of the free love generation in the 1960s led to a new era of permissiveness on the silver screen. Before porno hit Deep Throat came along in 1972 to shatter taboos and open a large-scale public dialogue about sex in cinema, filmmakers were slowly testing the waters of the acceptable. With each new film it seemed young auteurs were pushing the boundaries, breaking new ground and staking new territory. It was truly one of the greatest and most experimental times in American cinema.
In this climate, it’s a bit of a surprise that the American release of Daughters of Darkness would have a given the MPAA pause in 1971. While not setting out to do so, Daughters somehow pushed the boundaries of the acceptable too far, at least for American screens; this led to the film being heavily cut. Restored to its original directors cut version it becomes readily apparent that Daughters of Darkness isn’t nearly as ground-breaking as some of the genre classics to come out of the period. So why hasn’t Daughters of Darkness faded completely into obscurity? The reason it hasn’t lost its audience in the intervening years can probably be attributed to a strong sense of style that builds an unsettling atmosphere not easily shaken, and sure handed direction that manages to turn potentially trashy material in visual poetry.
Newly married Stefan (John Karlen) and Valerie Chilton (Danielle Ouimet) are newlyweds returning to Stefan’s family home in England to announce their recent nuptials. Consummating their marriage on a train bound for port, they’re delayed when a train on the line ahead derails in the middle of the night. Rather than waiting for the derailment to be cleared, the couple chooses to disembark and seek lodging at a seaside hotel in nearby Ostend. It being the off-season, the hotel is nearly deserted and the couple manages to procure the Royal Suite. Valerie is anxious to meet Stefan’s mother and gain familial approval but Stefan is less enthused about the idea of returning home with his new bride and, in secret, conspires to prolong their stay. This is understandable, considering that Stefan is “kept” by an older man whom he calls “mother.”
Soon after their arrival, Countess Bathory (Delphine Syerig) arrives at the hotel with her servant Ilona (Andrea Rau). The Concierge (Paul Esser) immediately recognizes the Countess from 40 years ago when he was just a young bellhop. He is shocked and scared that her appearance hasn’t changed one bit since, and doesn’t buy her attempts to subvert his suspicion. The Countess is not interested in the clerk, however and, immediately upon seeing them, sets her attention on the young couple. Drawing them into after-dinner conversation in the plush hotel lobby, the Countess regales them with stories of her ancestors and their habit of trying to prolong life by drinking the blood of virgins. It’s not long before the Countess is mentally seducing Valerie while she orders Ilona takes a more hands on approach to seducing Stefan.
Meanwhile, in the nearby town of Brugge, a serial killer is stalking young women, slitting their throats and leaving the bodies completely exsanguinated. A retired police detective (Georges Jamin) takes an unusual interest in the case and his inquires bring him to the hotel, where he hints that he has special knowledge of the Countess and her nocturnal activities. Before long there’s a death in the hotel, with the young couple inextricably caught up in it. It’s is then that the Countess’ true nature is finally revealed to the couple and they meet their ultimate destinies.
As you can probably tell, Daughters of Darkness doesn’t have much in the way of a plot, just a premise that plays out in very deliberate fashion. The director, Dutchman Harry Kümis, draws the material out to feature length by employing a lot of long takes. A function of the low budget and short shooting schedule, Kümis didn’t have the opportunity to shoot a lot of coverage. The result is that often scenes play out entirely in a master shot, with characters moving in and out of the frame, rather than the camera moving to follow the characters.
This approach, while unavoidable, could very easy have made the film feel cramped and stage bound. Surprisingly, the lack of cutting between angles really works. The deliberate pace gives the audience the opportunity to drink in the lush visuals and the way Kümis uses color within his static shots gives the film a Kubrick or Polanksi like vibe. It speaks highly of Kümis’ skills as a director that he was able to make such a stylish and effective film so quickly (shooting was less than five weeks) and with so many technical limitations imposed on him.
Apparently Daughters of Darkness caused a mini sensation when it was first released, with cuts being made to film down to an R-rating. Its shocking imagery hasn’t aged well; the film is rather tame by today’s standards. Hell, it probably felt pretty tame after just a few years, with grindhouse classic such as Last House on the Left upping the bar for confrontational onscreen content. While there’s a lot of nudity and a fair amount of sex, the film trades explicitness for eroticism. Ironically, while the material may have seemed tawdry at the time, it actually plays pretty classy in 2011. The lesbianism is never overt and, until the end, neither is the vampirism.
While the film is pretty engaging for most of its running time, there are a few points that could have been polished a bit. The subplot with the retired police detective doesn’t contribute anything to the development of the story and its resolution is so anticlimactic and unsatisfying there should have been a title card that read: WRITER’S CONVIENCE flashing across the screen. Similarly, after being introduced, Stefan’s “mother” is never heard from again. His scene lends the film a creepy vibe but the audience is left to ponder its significance to the plot or themes beyond its immediate impact.
It’s probably the film’s single greatest shortcoming that Delphine Syerig is extremely underused. Perhaps this is also a result of the low budget but she only has a small handful of scenes and isn’t given much to do in them. Mostly she smiles demurely and chews the scenery with a cool detachment. Daughters of Darkness also boasts some of the most ridiculous death scenes this side of a Final Destination movie. The difference is that while Final Destination plays it’s over the top kill scenes for grim laughs, Daughters of Darkness expects us to take its ludicrous violence totally straight-faced.
Though the material would on paper sound sensational and could easily lend itself to exploitation, the film is actually pretty feminist in its outlook. Valerie is a sweet girl who has (it’s assumed impulsively) married a man who is basing their entire relationship on a lie. Always hanging over her is the spectre of what happens when Valerie inevitably learns the truth about Stefan’s mother. There’s a very real possibility that she is in mortal danger without even knowing it. Stefan’s treatment of Ilona certainly suggests that he’s a brute and misogynist at heart. When Bathory seduces Valerie she’s not awakening a latent lesbianism, but Valerie’s own self-determination. By the end of the film Valerie is a stronger woman than she was at the beginning, with her stepping forward to wholeheartedly embrace a new destiny. It’s an interesting twist to use vampirism, with all the exploitative baggage it carries with it, as a metaphor for female empowerment. That’s just one of the many small, unique touches that elevate Daughters of Darkness above the usual, run of the mill cheapie vampire flick and make it something kind of special.
Daughters of Darkness looks remarkably good for a relatively obscure film on this vintage. The 1.66 AVC transfer runs at a consistently high bit rate and, for the most part, lacks noticeable compression related defects. The film employs a lot of red contrasting against light backgrounds, yet there’s never any blooming. Even one red on red scene that could have become a chroma nightmare is sharp and clear. Detail is strong, even in scenes where a soft filter was employed, which really lets you drink in the ornately detail hotel interiors. In fact, I can’t recall watching a 1970’s film that boasted better detail in soft filtered shots.
The biggest defect in the transfer was some very noticeable stair-stepping in certain shots, with the scene with the Countess knitting in the hotel lobby a particularly bad offender. The European favoured 1.66 aspect ratio means the film is slightly window boxed but, oddly, the image doesn’t seem completely centered. There are some noticeable source defects, as well: in a few scenes there are warped frames, flickering dark patches around the edges of the frame and, more infrequently, scratches. It’s not surprising that a film that has such a history of censorship would have some inconsistencies in the image. No huge complaints, though - for a film of this vintage and relative obscurity the image quality is stellar. If you watch Daughters of Darkness on Blu-ray, you’ll be seeing it in a whole new light.
An English mono DTS-HD track is provided. There is no multi-channel remix and some fans may bemoan the lack of a more contemporary track, but the purist in me loved this fantastically mixed soundtrack. Dialogue is always crisp and music doesn’t sound tinny or clipped. Sound effects are sparse, but that perfectly complements the atmosphere of the film. Even the droning score is well represented. This track is perfectly balanced: no element overwhelms the other. Fantastic.
Director Harry Kümis, accompanied by moderator David Gregory, provides an audio commentary. Kümis hits the ground running on this one, sharing insight into the development of the film from the different titles that were bandied about to camera tricks employed to help sell the winter setting (the film was actually shot in August). Kümis has strong technical chops - he’s a professor of film - and strong opinions about other filmmakers and their works. It’s refreshing to listen to a director who has a genuine perspective on his film without apologizing for its shortcomings.
A second audio commentary has John Karlen and journalist David Del Valle. It’s an interesting discussion, though too anecdote heavy to make it truly enlightening (and I don’t buy for a minute that Danielle Ouimet had a 40 inch waistline). Aside from the usual banter, the participants spend a lot of time speculating on the director’s intent. The fact that you can find out what his intent really was on his commentary track makes this one a bit redundant and pointless.
In Locations of Darkness (21:37) Harry Kümis and co-writer and producer Pierre Drouot return to the Astoria Hotel in Brussels where the interiors of the film were shot and share production anecdotes. Kumel doesn’t look anything like I imagined he would after listening to his audio commentary, but Drouot looks exactly like I thought Kümis would. It’s interesting to see the hotel pretty much unchanged since the 70’s.
Star Danielle Ouimet gives us insight into Playing the Victim (15:29) in a horror movie. She does a good job of setting the stage and explaining the social climate in which was Daughters was made. Starting with her own start as an actress making erotic films in Quebec to getting cast in Daughters and working with director Harry Kümis, Ouimet provides a fair amount of insight into the film industry of the late 60’s and early 70’s.
Even 40 years after Daughters of Darkness was made Andrea Rau is still adorable as hell in her interview segment, Daughter of Darkness (7:59). She covers a lot of the same ground as Ouimet: her start in German soft core films and the move into the semi-mainstream with Daughters. Rau has really aged well in this segment and she’s a hypnotic speaker.
Selection of the film’s advertising materials is included, as well. The Theatrical Trailer (2:09) really tries to sell the film as a balls-out horror fest, when it’s very clearly not. While I admire the skill of being able to cobble together an action packed trailer from such staid material, the trailer represents false advertising at its best. There are also four Radio spots (0:30 each) - nice, bite-sized portions of 70’s cheese complete with audio reverb overdose. Devil-evil-evil! Vampire-ire-ire! Awesome.
Finally, and most significantly, is the inclusion of a whole feature film as a supplement. The Blood Spattered Bride (1:41:00) is thematically linked to Daughters with both films drawing loose inspiration from the vampire novel Carmilla, but Bride is every bit as tacky and sleazy as you’d expect Daughters to be. Its inclusion is an interesting juxtaposition of wildly different takes of similar source material. The Spanish film is presented in a 480p standard definition, English-dubbed version with no alternate audio or subtitle options. The transfer is pretty mediocre, even by SD standards. The rich reds are free of chroma issues but the image quality is very soft and lacking in detail and the source material is in pretty rough shape. Still, its inclusion helps illustrate how strong the transfer of the main feature is.
An interesting slice of Eurotrash, Daughters of Darkness doesn’t quite have the spark to push it into overlooked classic territory. Director Harry Kümis has fashioned a stylish film that manages to overcome most of its shortcomings through sheer directorial strength. Fans will appreciate the solid presentation and the robust collection of supplements but, it’s not quite a revelatory film that demands a spot in your collection. It is most definitely worth a rent for those looking for an alternative to the usual, mainstream genre offerings, though.
This was one of my first experiences with Kumel and one that I have never ever forgotten. The atmosphere in this movie can be felt long after you have seen it, you will feel it and remember it. The quiet scenes are thought provoking and intriguing and the performances top notch. Thanks for the great review.
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