The late 1960s and early ’70s were the prime era for UK or Euro lesbian vampire films. Most were based, more or less, on Sheridan LeFanu’s Victorian novella, Carmilla. A smaller number use the historical figure Erzsebet Bathory. Daughters of Darkness is one of the latter, and makes “the Blood Countess” an actual vampire instead of an all too real, human monster.
Daughters of Darkness is remarkably international. It was filmed in Belgium by Belgium director Harry Kümel, but funded by six or seven different countries. Its star is famous French actress Delphine Seyrig, but producers in their respective nations also contributed German actress Andrea Rau and French Canadian actress Danielle Ouimet (playing a Swiss). America’s contribution was the lead actor, a Brooklyn boy playing British–I think; the character’s name and his accent sound more Eastern European than Brit to me. Anyway, it’s John Karlen, who has had previous experience dealing with vampires. He’s the reason I wanted to look at this film after seeing the trailer for it on one of the Dark Shadows extra features DVDs.
This film begins on a train, with newlywed couple Stefan and Valerie Chiltern demonstrating how to have sex within the confines of an upper berth. She seems a nice enough young woman, if a tad vapid, but we soon learn that there’s something just a little off about him.
Due to an accident on the line ahead, their train is late arriving at Ostend and they miss that evening’s ferry to England. While they wait for the next ferry, the couple checks in at the massive Hotel des Thermes right on the beach. It’s the middle of winter, so the hotel is empty and seems to be staffed only by one elderly concierge, who gives them the Royal Suite.
Not that Stefan minds the delay. He’s reluctant to get home with his bride. When he asks the concierge to put in a phone call to the UK for him, he slips the man a note as well as a tip. The note asks the concierge to say that he couldn’t get the call through.
Why doesn’t Stefan want to go home? It’s his mother, who he says will not welcome this impulsive marriage, which followed a whirlwind romance during a few weeks’ vacation in Switzerland. “She already hates you and she doesn’t even know you exist,” he tells Valerie.
Mother is going to be the least of their problems. While the couple discusses the matter over dinner, another pair of guests arrives in a stylish, old-fashioned car: the Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who is dressed like a glamorous 1930s movie star (Seyrig’s look specifically recalls Marlene Dietrich) and her cherry-lipped companion, Ilona. The concierge is surprised by the Countess; he’s sure he’s seen her before, 40 years ago when he was first working at the hotel as a young bellhop. And yet the lady doesn’t look as if she can be much more than 40 (she admits to 35).
“It must have been my mother,” she responds coolly.
The Countess wants the Royal Suite for herself, until she catches sight of the newlyweds in the dining room. She takes immediate interest in the young couple, and accepts the suite next to theirs. In the privacy of their room that night, the Countess and Ilona discuss their neighbors. The Countess hasn’t stopped talking about Valerie since she first saw her, which makes Ilona jealous.
When Ilona observes that Valerie and her husband will only be staying at the hotel for one night, the Countess replies that many things can change in a night.
Since Stefan is in no hurry to present Valerie to Mother, things work out in accord with the Countess’s as-yet unspecified plans. The couple decides to hang around Belgium a little while longer. Over breakfast, Valerie reads the headlines of a Flemish newspaper article about the horrible murder of three young women in Bruges. So naturally they take a day trip to that beautiful city, ride around in a boat on its Venice-like canals, and are on the spot when the body of a fourth murder victim is discovered in an empty building.
Among the other people gathered around the crime scene is a creepy older man who latches on to Stefan to murmur the grisly details of these murders into his receptive ear.
It’s here we first see how “off” Stefan is. When the police bring out the blanket-covered body on a stretcher, he’s so eager to get a look at it that he shoves his brand new wife aside and knocks her down.
Valerie is incredibly forgiving, although they talk about it on the bus ride back to Ostend that evening. “Don’t lie to yourself,” she tells him. “You were pleased. It gave you pleasure. You actually enjoyed to see that dead girl’s body. ”
Stefan doesn’t deny this.
The only other passenger on the bus is Creepy Guy, who pretends to read a newspaper while keeping an eye on them.
Back at the hotel, Ilona has decided that she should leave, since the newcomers are what the Countess wants now, not her. But Elizabeth talks her out of even trying to go. When Stefan and Valerie enter, dripping wet from a sudden rainstorm they’ve been caught in, Elizabeth greets them vociferously and fusses over them. She invites them to have drinks with her, and doesn’t take No for an answer.
What delights me about this scene is that, before Ilona tries to make her exit and Stefan and Valerie come in, the Countess is sitting in the hotel’s luxurious lobby, cozily knitting with four needles and two differently colored balls of yarn. Vampire knitting is a complicated business, but I suppose one must have a hobby to fill in the long evening hours over the centuries.
When this little group reassembles in the lounge, they look at another newspaper, this one with a story about that fourth victim and a photograph of Stefan and Valerie among the ghoulish gawkers. The damp newspaper turns out to belong to the Creepy Guy on the bus, for he has followed the couple into the hotel. He introduces himself: he’s a retired policeman who investigated a similar case some years ago. There have been series of murders like the ones in Bruges in various European cities over the years.
We never learn why he latched on to Stefan the way he did, but it’s the Countess he really suspects.
More creepiness from Stefan. He’s only been married a few days, but when he first sees Ilona, his attention shifts to her. You can practically hear the schwing! But that’s nothing to the way he responds when the Countess begins to talk about her supposed ancestor and namesake, that notorious Erzsebet or Elizabeth Bathory, who was said to drink the blood of virgins to retain her young and beauty. As the two describe to each other the horrible tortures the 16th-century countess inflicted on her victims, the present-day Elizabeth hangs over the young man’s chair, arms around his shoulders. They’re almost at the point of mutual orgasm over unspeakable cruelty when Valerie, who has been pleading for them to stop, has had enough and runs upstairs to her room.
She’s getting out of the shower when she thinks she hears someone on the balcony. When she opens the door, she surprises Ilona, waiting to pounce like a naked ninja.
Valerie screams, which brings her husband–who was still downstairs with the Countess–running up.
The balcony is empty and the Countess suggests that Valerie must have been imagined an intruder. When she goes into her own suite next door, there’s Ilona in the bathroom, still naked and being sick.
“Couldn’t you wait?” the Countess demands.
What’s interesting is how much standard vampire lore this movie keeps, and what it rejects. When the Countess opens her compact mirror, she does have a reflection. On the other hand, neither she nor Ilona is able to come out in daylight, and it doesn’t appear that they eat or drink (apart from the vampire’s usual diet). The Countess orders a creme de menthe but doesn’t drink it. Ilona pours it surreptitiously into a potted fern. And neither of the vampire ladies ever displays fangs.
The next morning, Stefan finally puts that phone call through t0 Mother in England to announce that he’s married–and it’s here we get the weirdest thing in an already very weird movie. Stefan wasn’t lying about how Mother would disapprove of Valerie without knowing a thing about her, but he wasn’t quite telling the truth about that relationship. Dear old Mom is in fact an older, stereotypically gay man who lounges about the conservatory and grows orchids. He doesn’t sound English either. Spanish, maybe.
Valerie only hears Stefan’s side of the phone conversation, so she never learns the truth about Mother. I suppose Stefan was trying to break away from his relationship with this man by making an impulsive marriage to a woman he barely knows–and who doesn’t know him at all–but I have to wonder what the hell he thought he was going to do when they got to England and Valerie met Mother. Did he believe she would accept it? More likely, she would have turned right around and headed home to Switzerland. The marriage was doomed even without the vampires showing up.
If Stefan was attempting to break away with Valerie, his conversation with Mother puts an end to that. As soon as he hangs up, his ugly side comes out in full. He takes his frustration out on Valerie, beating her with his belt and perhaps subjecting her to some rough and forcible sex, although we don’t see that; the film goes to the waves crashing on the beach during a storm.
When we come back to the couple, it’s sunset. Stefan is asleep with the belt still in his hands, and Valerie lies with her head in her arms and welts on her legs and back. The honeymoon is definitely over. So is the marriage.
Valerie quietly slips out of bed, gets dressed, and packs her things. Unfortunately, the Countess sees her sneaking out of the hotel.
After sending Ilona to distract Stefan, the Countess chases after Valerie and catches up with her just as she’s about to get on a train. It’s not that the Countess talks Valerie out of going, but that her strength of will and insistent personality easily overcome Valerie’s pliable nature. Valerie misses her train and lets herself be led away.
When Stefan wakes up, he finds Ilona standing beside the bed. He has absolutely no objection when she gets in with him. While Valerie and the Countess are out walking around and talking about love and cruelty, the other pair has impossible looking sex.
Although Elizabeth sounds as if she’s trying to convince Valerie to go back to her husband and accept his sadism, that’s not what she’s after. She also speaks of acknowledging the dark side of one’s own nature. She makes advances on Valerie under the guise of reading her palm. Valerie is repulsed by these overtures–and frankly tells Elizabeth so–but she doesn’t spurn her.
Meanwhile, back at the hotel, Stefan is in the shower. Ilona watches him, preparing to make her own move. She does this little thing with her teeth that I like; it reminds me of the way cats chitter when they’re at the window watching a bird or squirrel outside.
But Ilona’s plans are spoiled when Stefan sees her and carries her into the shower with him. He only means it as some playful rough-house–and we know just how rough he can get–but running water is apparently something that vampires can’t abide.
Ilona struggles frantically to escape the shower spray, and manages to stumble into the first of the three ridiculously contrived deaths this movie features: she slips against the sink, accidentally grabs Stefan’s straight-razor from the shelf, and impales herself on it when she falls on the bathroom floor. Stefan falls on top of her. Oops!
What’s more awkward than finding yourself naked on the floor with a equally naked dead woman? Your wife walking in on the scene.
But the Countess is in command of the situation. She’s has plenty of experience disposing of inconvenient corpses, and dead Ilona means nothing to her now that she’s got some new toys to play with. After cleaning up the blood in the bathroom, they wrap the body in a sheet, toss it over the balcony to the empty street in front of the hotel in the early hours of the morning, pop it into the trunk of the Countess’s car, and drive out to bury it in the sand dunes. Stefan digs with his hands–and nearly gets buried himself when the walls of the pit collapse–while Elizabeth and Valerie keep watch. As dawn approaches, they hasten to finish up and race back to the hotel.
It turns out that the retired policeman was following them on a bicycle and may have seen something incriminating, but the Countess soon deals with him. You could have removed him entirely from the story and it wouldn’t have made a difference.
Back at the hotel, Stefan returns exhausted to his own suite to sleep through the day. Valerie goes to the Countess’s room.
When he wakes that evening, Stefan packs his own suitcase and is ready to get out of Ostend before Ilona’s body turns up. He now understands that the Countess is responsible for the murders in Bruges and who knows how many others in countless European cities over the years. He wants Valerie to come away with him.
Valerie refuses. It’s not just the beating with the belt or the whole naked dead Ilona thing–she’s now under Elizabeth’s spell. As she tells Stefan, when she’s with the Countess, she becomes someone else. The Countess wants Valerie to stay with her.
She suggests that they discuss this over dinner in her room. “You’ll find it greatly to your advantage to be nice to me.” She’s dressed in a fabulous silver lamé gown. Valerie is dressed in something mod and white. Stefan wears his red bathrobe for this occasion.
At first, the Countess intends bringing them both along with her–she even tries to push the young couple together again even though Valerie doesn’t want Stefan to touch her. But Stefan doesn’t want to be in a subservient position to this woman.
“I am a man,” he insists piggishly, and fatally. “She belongs to me.”
“Was she yours last night?” Elizabeth retorts. “Will she be yours if you let go of her now?”
Stefan attempts to prove his manhood by heading for the door and dragging Valerie after him, then smacking her around when she struggles to stop him. He’s not a match for the Countess, however, and once she gets him down on the floor, she and Valerie subject him to a strange assault that I call Death by Cut Glass Punchbowl. (It’s not actually a bowl, but the covering for one of the fancy serving trays which fell off the table during their fight.) You can’t kill someone by putting a glass dome over his head, however; when the glass breaks in two, Stefan’s death comes about by even more bizarre means. Like Ilona’s, this death looks accidental, but the ladies aren’t going to let that fresh blood go to waste.
Another night, another wrapped-up body tossed off the balcony, loaded into the trunk, and discarded in a ditch. The Countess and her new companion drive frantically out of Ostend to reach the border before sunrise. But they are driving toward the east.
It’s a very stylish-looking movie. That’s the principal thing that strikes me when I view this. It’s beautifully composed; images are more important than story. Although Kümel calls his film a dream, the narrative is nevertheless more coherent than, say, the dreamlike or nightmare scenarios in Italian horror that rarely make sense to the rational mind.
The film’s original title in French is Les Lèvres Rouges–The Red Lips. Red is an important color throughout the film. The pouty red lips of Ilona. The red car. The Countess’s red dress when she seduces Stefan with tales of torture, and her red fingernails when she reads Valerie’s palm. Stefan’s red jacket when he visits Bruges and his red bathrobe on other occasions. The red blanket covering the murder victim. The flood of red light that fills the screen and signals transitions between important scenes. The blood.
This stylistic approach makes the abundant sex scenes come off as arty rather than sleazy. The late ’60 and early ’70s were also the time when what were called “mature subjects” increased dramatically even in U.S. movies after the collapse of the old Production Code, but more so in Europe. This film is a prime example–there’s a lot of kinky stuff going on, and three out of the four main characters get naked more than once. But whether they’re in an erotic context, or brutal and distasteful, or even inexplicable like Ilona’s lurking on the balcony, the sex and nudity are presented in a matter of fact way. I don’t find them tedious like French vampire films of the same era, with their egregiously leering “look at these breasts!” shots, so often are.
If I have a problem, it’s with the very end of the film. And it’s not the third goofy, accidental death.
Delphine Seyrig was a talented actress who could master the incongruities of this ancient predatory monster who’s posing as a glamorous but slightly camp Marlene Dietrich wannabe, mocking her own outdatedness and mannered artificiality, but always in control of the mortals around her even when they aren’t taking her seriously. Danielle Ouimet, while she seems nice enough, just can’t pull the same kind of performance off. She’s going to need two or three hundred years more practice before I can believe she’s taken the Countess’s place.
There are a load of extra features on the BluRay disk.
- A pleasant little documentary in which Harry Kümel and co-writer Pierre Drouot revisit the two hotels where the movie was filmed. The Thermes Palace was used for the exteriors, but most of the interiors were done in the Astoria in Brussels. Apart from a few minor decor changes, both look very much the same as they did in the early ’70s. It makes me want to visit Belgium just to have a look at them.
- Two commentaries, one by Kümel and the other by John Karlen. Kümel’s is kind of pretentious. Karlen’s is more fun; he tells some good stories about the other actors (although he didn’t like Kümel), and he gets such a kick out of watching himself when he was young and fit and “still had a neck”. He says that there’s a shot in the beating scene that Dan Curtis “borrowed” for Quentin when he was possessed by Charles in The Night of Dark Shadows. If you watch both movies one after the other, you’ll spot it.
- Another film, The Blood-Spattered Bride. I may review this one separately at a later date, but it’s one of those French vampire Carmilla knockoffs that I mentioned above and made me appreciate how well done Daughters of Darkness is by comparison