Daughters of Darkness (US - BD)
Gabe revisits one of the most beautiful Sapphic Vampire movies ever made...
Secret newlyweds Stefan (John Karlen) and Valerie (Daniele Ouimet) stop at a spacious Belgian hotel for the evening. That night, while the couple dines their way through an incredibly awkward discussion, a mysterious Hungarian countess calling herself Elizabeth Báthory (Delphine Seyrig) arrives with her 'secretary' Ilona (Andrea Rau). Báthory takes an immediate interest in the couple, specifically Valerie. The next day the countess goes about seducing and separating the already drama wrought couple.
About a year ago I wrote up a review of Jose Ramon Larraz’s Vampyres and I used up all my knowledge of the Lesbian Vampire, or Sapphic Vampire subgenre. For better or worse I marked Vampyres as my favourite film in the subgenre, but was sure to qualify the statement with a quick mention of Daughters of Darkness, a more popular, and generally better made motion picture. Now that I’ve seen the film for a third or fourth time (who keeps track of these things) I’m ready to push it up to number one on that list. Daughters of Darkness is different beast than most Sapphic Vampire flicks, even though it follows the familiar frames of the Erzsébet Báthory legend, and Joseph Sheridan le Fanu's novella ‘Carmilla’. Director Harry Kumel shows interest in titillating his audience, and doesn’t scrimp on the sex and violence (the very sight of a nude Andrea Rau can likely turn most boys to men on the spot), but Daughters of Darkness isn’t a mindless exploitation enterprise, and isn’t outrageously discernable from other French films of the era. The heart of the film is an angst-ridden, passive aggressive relationship between two newly weds that clearly aren’t meant for each other, and the bulk of the conflict has more to do with fidelity and sexual interactions than bloodsucking. Perhaps most impressive is the fact that Daughters of Darkness is a genuinely sexy film. Kumel doesn’t just depend on his actress’ natural beauty, or gratuitous, graphic sex, he choreographs shots featuring tactile sensuality.
The film’s most uncomfortably enigmatic streak revolves around the male lead, Stefan, who is the most intriguingly unusual person among terminally weird characters. With every scene we learn something new about his tortured mind. At first he just appears to be a bit of a bastard that’s made the mistake of marrying someone he doesn’t really know. Stephen and Valerie are introduced engaging in post coital discussion in which they both swear that they don’t love each other (Valerie is clearly uncomfortable with this). Awkward. The couple ends up in the central hotel because Stefan isn’t ready to tell his mother about the abrupt marriage just yet. What a jerk. Later, at the scene of a murder, he ignores Valerie as she’s smacked in the face by a stranger because he’s transfixed by the sight of a dead body. Creepy. Afterwards Stefan allows himself to be seduced by Elizabeth as she talks about the revolting things her ‘ancestor’ did to virgins in the 17th century in full view of Valerie, who pleads for them to stop. Unforgiveable. Stefan then finally agrees to call his mother as atonement, but instead contacts his gay lover, who he pretends is his mother for Valerie’s benefit. The minute he hangs up the phone, he removes his belt and beats Valerie until he passes out from exhaustion. It’s important to note that Stefan is kind of the hero of the second and third act.
Visually Kumel takes some of his cues from Hammer’s subgenre definer Vampire Lovers, but mostly takes pains to create a contemporary film, and is more interested in dream states than our gothic memories. Though much of the imagery is dated by fashion, the vampire-centric pieces of the story are still reasonably modern, and would likely play reasonably well if it was re-released today. In terms of the general public’s understanding of vampire lore the film takes some of our knowledge granted (a vampire is hurt by running water with no explanation, for example), but more often he takes efforts to invert some of our gothic expectations. The vampiric condition is presented mostly as a drag, a relatively novel idea to movie blood-suckers, who were almost always portrayed as happily evil creatures. Daughters of Darkness doesn’t begin to approach the subversive heights of something like George Romero’s Martin, but along with similar European films (many of which were Sapphic themed, for whatever reason) it helped bring the vampire myth into a more social adult arena not seen since the earliest days of film, and movies like Nosferatu and Les Vampires.
Kumel’s use of colour is a final little piece of extra effort that can be easily overlooked upon early viewings. He isn’t necessarily making any clear statement with his colour choices, but on multiple viewings it’s hard not to notice certain sequences are almost monochromatic, often from obvious use of gels, but just as often because of set dressing and wardrobe choices. The beginning of the second act is particularly interesting. The night starts with a dawn sun that bakes the entire sequence bright red. When Valerie leaves the hotel room, she’s clad in almost all white and set against a white hallway. She’s then followed by Elizabeth, who is also clad mostly in white, with a deep black skirt. While the two blondes are out in the incredibly blue external night, Ilona and her jet black, bobby cut hair visits Stefan in his lily white sheeted bed wearing all black. Following Ilona’s death Stefan wears the same red bathrobe, and Valerie wears different iterations of white. Does any of this mean anything? A battle between saints and sinners, or maybe between whores and virgins? Perhaps, but it doesn’t really matter beyond the visual intrigue, which is more than enough for me.
Daughters of Darkness already enjoyed a good looking DVD releases thanks to Blue Underground’s anamorphic updating of Anchor Bay’s non-anamorphic release, which was then updated again for a two-disc special edition release a few years ago. Most fans likely don’t particularly want to buy the film again, even with the promise of a 1080p transfer. The film starts incredibly dark, and even in remastered 1080p it’s still damn difficult to tell what exactly is going on. The darkness isn’t helped much by the soft focus and foggy landscapes. At this point I was a little worried that Blue Underground had lost their touch, but ended up breathing a sigh of relief soon after, when the male lead flips on an overhead light in his train car. This isn’t BU’s most impressive or consistent Blu-ray, but it’s a sizable enough upgrade for fans to seriously consider re-buying the film yet again. Kumel and cinematographer Eduard van der Enden utilize a lot of soft focus, so indelibly sharp edges and super-fine details aren’t really a part of the equation, but there’s still a lot more texture, especially in backgrounds of wider shots. However it’s colour that remains the more important point. Red is a defining hue, and it often pops harshly and sharply against the otherwise neutral palette. These reds are relatively consistent too, from the opening title card, to blood and random set pieces. Usually there is only slight blooming or compression noise, but the overall production does suffer a bit of unnatural warming when these reds come into play, which I’m reasonably sure was not the intended effect, even though red dissolves are used with relative regularity. Bleeding areas includes flesh tones, deeper blacks, and some background elements. There are a handful of frames that feature definitive print damage (scratches, warping), and grain is plenty obvious, but the overall print is clean, with only some iffy edges and other minor inconsistencies to stop me from flat out demanding fans buy this version of the film.
There isn’t as much to say about this disc’s dueling DTS-HD Master Audio Mono soundtracks, unfortunately, other than I generally had no problem with them. Though made in Belgium by a Belgium director, the French track probably isn’t the way to go since the actors are all speaking English in their own accents. The English track also features a more accomplished mix, leading one to assume the French dub was a bit of an afterthought for the production. It also might just be a matter of the English track being in better shape than the French track, but the fact of the matter is that here, on this Blu-ray, the English track features better fidelity and more dynamic range. Clearly there isn’t anything happening in terms of directional effects, but the mix is clean, and there isn’t a lot of distortion even during loud screaming fits. Though there are some decent atmospheric effects throughout, François de Roubaix’s beautiful score really sells the film’s off-kilter feel. De Roubaix mixes the rhythms of waltzes with traditional French influences, and spikes his music with Morricone-esque electric guitars. The main theme is diabolically infectious.
The extras here match the special edition DVD Blue Underground released a while back, starting with two feature length commentary tracks. The first track features co-writer/director Harry Kumel and moderator David Gregory. I was torn while listening to this track because there are so many things I don’t want to know about Daughters of Darkness, but Kumel is so well prepared and well spoken (and Gregory is a fine interviewer). I feared that understanding the purpose of certain aspects of this enigmatic film would reveal it to be simple and trashy. I’m happy to discover that the film’s strangeness mostly comes out of Kumel’s attempts at creating a mainstream picture, and to report that the director is more interested in discussing technical aspects, and silly little anecdotes than underlying meanings. The second track features star John Karlen, and journalist David del Valle. Surprisingly it is this track that ruins a bit of the mystique. Both the actor and the journalist delve into some of the same technical stuff as Kumel, but also worry themselves with subtext and character layers. This stuff doesn’t really hurt the track though, which features some fun interaction. It’s also refreshing that Karlen actually likes, respects, and remembers the film, which is rare for these kinds of cult items (less refreshing are his jabs at his fellow cast members).
Next up is ‘Locations of Darkness’ (21:40, SD), an interview segment with Kumel and co-writer/co-producer Pierre Drouot set to the pair wondering through various filming locations. Drouot apparently can’t remember much about the writing period, and is constantly corrected by Kumel, but once they get into the production process the time just flies by thanks to their endearing interaction. ‘Playing the Victim’ (15:30, SD) is an interview with actress Danielle Ouimet, who quite pleasantly discusses her early career, and her place in Daughters of Darkness (she vomited in excitement when she got the part). She didn’t get along all that well with Kumel (he slapped her), but looks back on the experience with good humour. ‘Daughter of Darkness’ (8:00, SD) continues the interview train with actress Andrea Rau, who recalls the film with a smile, and nice words about Kumel, the actors, being nude, and her haircut (which she still has to this day). Also includes is a trailer and a collection of radio spots.
But Blue Underground isn’t content to end the goodies there, because they include a second lesbian and vampire themed flick – Vicente Aranda’s Blood Spattered Bride. That’s right, you get two Sapphic blood-sucker flicks for the price of one. Blood Spattered Bride is definitely similar to Daughters of Darkness in terms of its neo-gothic look, recall of the ‘Camilla’ story, its outlook on sex, its love triangle, and its male lead’s penchant for random violence, but has more emotionally in common with other loopy ‘70s Spanish horror flicks like Cannibal Man. The plot follows a newly married couple who settle in the husband’s sterile and stuffy home, which is surrounded by castle ruins. The wife, Susan, begins to have violent nightmares involving a mysterious woman who goads her into murdering her husband. Disturbed by these visions, Susan spirals slowly into insanity until the woman of her dreams shows up at the estate in the flesh. The woman’s name is Camilla, and she has a taste for man-blood. Blood Spattered Bride (which is referenced in Kill Bill) isn’t a great movie (it’s too long, it’s slow, the acting is stiff, the English dialogue is atrocious, etcetera), but has a pleasantly strange atmosphere, and some arrestingly bizarre moments, such as the one where the husband discovers Camilla buried nude beneath the sand on a beach, wearing a diving mask and breathing through a snorkel. The film is presented in standard definition, and doesn’t look or sound more than acceptable. This is apparently the uncut version of the film.
Daughters of Darkness doesn’t just belong a top the Sapphic Vampire pyramid with Vampyres, The Vampire Lovers and Vampyros Lesbos, it’s good enough to be discussed alongside classic European thrillers like Les Diaboliques and Eyes without a Face. Horror fans only expecting gory excess need not apply, but those that can also appreciate more subtle terrors should probably have this one under their belts. This re-release is more visually impressive than even the already impressive DVD special edition, but doesn’t feature any new extras (though the inclusion of Blood Spattered Bride is still pretty cool), or a sizably more inspiring soundtrack.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Thanks to Troy at Andersonvision.com for the screen-caps. Clink the link and visit his site.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 1st March 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 English and French
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Director Commentary, Actor Commentary, Locations of Darkness, Daughter of Darkness, Playing the Victim, Trailer, Radio Spots, The Blood Splattered Bride (Feature Length Film
Easter Egg: No
Director: Harry Kumel
Cast: Delphine Seyrig, John Karlen, Danielle Ouimet, Andrea Rau
Genre: Drama, Horror and Thriller
Length: 100 minutes
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