Delphine Seyrig, the iconic French actress was accustomed to working with directors of the calibre of Alain Resnais, François Truffaut, Luis Buñuel and Jacques Demy. Yet somehow in 1971 she was persuaded by the young Belgian director Harry Kümel to appear in a project far removed from her usual fare. In marked contrast to the likes of Chantal Akermann’s three and a half hour feminist epic of the mundane, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Brussels, in which she made one of her most celebrated appearances, Kümel’s film was a lurid tale of centuries-old lesbian vampires, grisly murder and psychosexual violence set in off-season Ostend.
Daughters of Darkness tells the story of newlyweds Stefan (John Karlen) and Valerie (Danielle Ouimet), who are travelling to England after a whirlwind romance in Switzerland to break the news of their marriage to Stefan’s aristocratic mother, ‘Lady Chiltern’. However, it soon becomes clear that Stefan is not quite what he seems, and his continued reluctance to inform his mother about his new bride arouses Valerie’s suspicions. Stopping over in Ostend before crossing the North Sea, they find themselves the sole guests in their sea-front hotel until, in the dead of night, a car pulls up and two mysterious women emerge; the Countess Elizabeth Bathory (Seyrig) and her beautiful ‘secretary’ Ilona (Andrea Rau). The Countess claims to be a descendent of the legendary Hungarian noblewoman Elizabeth (or Erzsébet) Báthory, who was alleged to have tortured and killed hundreds of young women between 1585 and 1609, bathing in their blood to retain her own youth (quickly becoming the stuff of folklore and a key part of vampire lore). But we are immediately led to believe that Seyrig is actually the original Bathory, alive and well after all these years, not least because the concierge is convinced that she had stayed at the same hotel 40 years before, when he was just a young bellboy, although she doesn’t seem to have aged a day in the meantime.
At the same time, reports start emerging of a series of gruesome murders in nearby Bruges, which arouse Stefan’s interest to the point of obsession. The Countess appears equally obsessed with the young couple, especially Valerie (“so perfect”), and makes every effort to befriend them and prevent them from leaving, which in turn incites Ilona’s jealousy. It soon emerges that Stefan has secrets of his own, not least that his ‘mother’ is in fact a heavily rouged man who is infuriated by the news of the marriage (a remarkable, and very camp, cameo from Oscar-winning Dutch director Fons Rademakers, famous for his adaptations of literary classics such as Harry Mulisch’s The Assault and Multatuli’s Max Havelaar). We also quickly learn that he’s a brutal sadist, who’s violent inner urges are inflamed by the Countess’ graphic descriptions of her ‘ancestor’s’ evil deeds, causing him to brutally beat the astonished Valerie with his belt, leaving her a bruised and battered mess.
At this point, the established relationships begin to unravel and re-align, as Valerie attempts to leave Stefan, but is stopped by the Countess. Ilona, also at the Countess’ bidding, seduces Stefan but is accidentally killed when he forces her to join him in a post-coital shower (vampires being notoriously allergic to water). The three remaining characters dispose of the body in the dunes surrounding Ostend, after which Valerie decisively rejects Stefan and opts to spend the night with the Countess instead, at which point she is finally transformed in to a vampire herself, a replacement for the now-deceased Ilona. There is final confrontation over dinner the following evening, during which the two women kill Stefan and flee into the night, pursued by the coming dawn. Their flight ends in a car crash in which the Countess is apparently killed, but a brief epilogue shows Valerie alive and well, albeit having mysteriously adopted Bathory’s character and mannerisms, not to mention her voice…
The film’s origins were less than promising. Kümel and co-writer/producer Pierre Drouot knocked out the script over three days and nights at the dining table in Kümel’s parents’ apartment in Antwerp. The director admits that their intention was to make, “the trashiest, pulpiest movie” they possibly could, but with one key difference: “we need Delphine Seyrig”. The chances of persuading Seyrig, then one of Europe’s most acclaimed stage and screen actresses to appear in a low-budget Belgian horror film must have seemed remote in the extreme, and she almost certainly would have turned down the role if not for the intervention of Resnais, an avid fan of european bandes-dessinées, who was attracted to the ‘comic strip’ elements of the script and encouraged her to take the role.
And, in the end, Resnais’ advice was probably sound. Despite their stated desire to make something trashy, Kümel and Drouot actually managed to produce a stylish and relatively subtle take on the ‘lesbian vampire’ theme so prevalent during the period (1970-71 also saw the release of Hammer’s increasingly exploitative trilogy – The Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil – as well as Jess Franco’s genre-defining Vampyros Lesbos). By down-playing the sex and violence, and focusing instead on chilly atmospherics and the erotic tension created by the ambiguous relationships of the central characters, they avoided many of the genre’s more obvious pitfalls (there are no bloody fangs here) and succeeded in creating an intriguing hybrid of Art and Exploitation Cinema.
But is also an evocative portrait of Belgium in the early ‘70s. The bleak and foreboding spectacle of Ostend in the winter is used to excellent effect, with its grey concrete apartment blocks, rows of shuttered beach huts, and the grim North Sea with a lone ship sailing off towards the horizon. The streets of Bruges, usually packed with tourists even in the winter, seem eerily quiet, like a scene out of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now or Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu (but without the rats). The only sign of life is a crowd of gawping locals surrounding the scene of the latest murder. There is even a nocturnal bus-ride through the flat and desolate Flemish countryside, as well as a lengthy scene on the dunes around Ostend. The hotel scenes were created from a hybrid of the Hotel Astoria on the rue Royale in Brussels and the Hotel des Thermes in Ostend, with its sinister and deserted gallery adding to the sense of impending dread. One brief but memorable scene, in which the Countess and Valerie wander down the moonlit arcade with deep shadows slanting across the tiled floor, evokes the work of the Ostend Symbolist painter Leon Spilliaert. It’s unsurprising then that Kümel regards the film as being “very Belgian”, and strongly influenced by the country’s particular strands of Surrealism and Expressionism.
The moody atmosphere is greatly enhanced by cinematographer Eduard van der Enden, who skillfully highlights the modern-gothic aspects of the barely-inhabited, deathly quiet hotel, and delights in soft-focus shots of Seyrig, swathed in black feathers and shimmering lamé gowns, her pale skin contrasted with the deep red of her lips and nails. Colour-wise, black, red and white predominate, as Kümel felt they represented “the colours of death”, although he has also stated (in an interview with Mark Gatiss for the BBC’s Horror Europa) that he used them for Seyrig’s costumes in part because they were the colours of the Nazi Party, and would thus emphasise Bathory’s character as a demagogue.
Kümel styled the character of the Countess after Marlene Dietrich, and that of Ilona after Louise Brooks. Seyrig clearly approved of this choice, as (having just seen Ernst Lubitsch’s Angel at the Brussels Film Museum) she decided to base her entrance to the hotel on that of the earlier screen icon. She also made a conscious decision to play the role “with a smile”, imbuing her version of Bathory with an unexpected charm and lightness which, given who she is and what she’s up to, makes her seem all the more menacing and predatory. The only overt reference to her true nature comes during the burial scene on the dunes. As she and Valerie gaze out in to the North Sea, while Stefan buries the unfortunate Ilona, the Countess raises her cloak in both arms, like the wings of a bat, and envelopes Valerie from behind, clearly showing her intention to possess the younger woman body and soul.
The other characters are equally ambiguous. Stefan at first appears to be a paragon of English respectability, but is soon revealed as a crazed sadist with a secret and presumably ‘aberrant’ sexual past (think back to his dominating ‘mother’). Ilona, as the Countess’ beautiful lover, and fellow vampire, would seem to be a figure of strength, but in the end she is a mere dupe for Bathory’s schemes, and we are left to assume that, had she lived, she might one day have suffered the same fate as Valerie. And, while Valerie is initially repelled and disgusted by the Countess, it isn’t long before she is seduced, and ultimately subsumed, by the older woman, perhaps suggesting that she harboured dark urges of her own, which were only waiting to be released. And within all this there is a subversive undercurrent about female empowerment. As the Countess tells Valerie: “He (Stefan) dreams of making out of you what every man dreams of making out of every woman – a slave, a thing, an object of pleasure,” and this seems to be confirmed during the final confrontation, in which Stefan tells the Countess, “Valerie will do as I tell her… I am a man, and she is mine”. But this too is ambiguous. After all, are Bathory’s own ends any different?
Daughters of Darkness was a success upon its release, and remains a cult classic to this day, having recently received a superb blu-ray release on the Blue Underground label. Its unusual blend of early-70’s vampire kitsch and European art-film austerity, along with Seyrig’s magnetic on-screen presence, have even led to some positive notices from the American intelliegntsia. Camille Paglia approvingly included the film in her definition of the ‘Psychological High Gothic’ which she describes as “abstract and ceremonious [in which] evil has become world-weary, hierarchical glamour. There is no bestiality. The theme is eroticized western power, the burden of history.” And Geoffrey O’Brien echoed these ideas in his essay Horror for Pleasure, concluding, “If Fassbinder had made a vampire movie it might have looked something like this.”
Could there be any higher praise?