Synopsis: International screen icon Delphine Seyrig (of LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD fame) stars as Elizabeth Bathory, an ageless Countess with a beautiful young ‘companion’ (Goth goddess Andrea Rau) and a legendary legacy of perversion. But when the two women seduce a troubled newlywed couple (French beauty Danielle Ouimet and John Karlen of DARK SHADOWS and CAGNEY & LACEY), they unleash a frenzy of sudden violence and depraved desire that shocked both art house audiences and grindhouse crowds worldwide.
Co-written and directed by Harry Kümel, DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS remains one of the most exquisitely mesmerizing adult horror films ever made.
eyelights: Danielle Ouimet. the grand hotel. Danielle Ouimet’s outfits.
eyesores: its silly finale. its opaque character motivations. its shoddy editing. its lack of excitement.
“Death seems to follow in your wake.”
Vlad the Impaler may be the most recognized historical figure attached to the legend of the vampire, but there is another: Elizabeth Báthory, a Hungarian Countess who was accused of killing hundreds of young women; legend has it that she would bathe in the blood of virgins to retain her youth.
Naturally, this inspired all sorts of fictionalized accounts of her life and crimes; since the 18th century, she’s been a staple of folklore. She’s since been the subject of a handful of motion pictures, including ‘Countess Dracula‘, starring Ingrid Pitt, and Walerian Borowczyk’s ‘Contes immoraux‘.
‘Daughters of Darkness’ is a 1971 Belgian/French/German co-production that also centers on the Countess. Set at a seaside Belgian hotel, it finds newlyweds Stefan and Valerie crossing paths with the Countess and her personal secretary, Ilona, upon her return to the hotel after 40 years’ absence.
It’s a slow-moving picture that revolves entirely around the group’s interpersonal dynamics: it was shot at the Royal Galleries of Ostend off season and there’s quite literally no other cast aside for the concierge and a retired policeman who decides to follow Stefan back from Bruges to Ostend.
Its plot is simple: Upon her arrival, the Countess is immediately fascinated with the couple and decides to seduce them. Meanwhile, Valerie and Stefan struggle over her desire to be announced to his mother as his spouse. Tension mounts and Countess Báthory takes advantage of the situation.
I’m all for simple, atmospheric films, but they have to have their act together. ‘Daughters of Darkness’ is not one of them: despite its minimal plot, it’s full of gaps and some of its plot developments are simply nonsensical. In my mind, there’s absolutely no excuse for not getting a meagre script right.
- Firstly, Stefan is hesitant about calling his mother to make the announcement. He says it’s because she’s aristocratic and won’t accept Valerie – but we never really know the real reason why. And it’s even more confounding when he finally calls and we discover that “mother” is actually father. WTF. And what’s with all opaque talk about the marriage complicating things? What things? We never find out. WTF.
- We also don’t know why the Countess returns after 40 years. Is it just a coincidence? And why would she would lie to the concierge about being the same woman as back then, and then a minute later reveal herself to him? What was the point? And why doesn’t he do anything about it? There’s probably not much he can do, but he just sits there. Perhaps, as the only staff in the whole hotel, he can’t take time off to consult someone.
Yes, I’m being facetious.
- And what are Báthory’s intentions for the couple? The picture doesn’t explain her backstory so we are left to guess what she plans on doing. Those who know her legend will wonder if she will kill them and bathe in their blood. Others might wonder if she will replace Ilona, as the poor young woman fears. Or will she simply add the pair to her stable of lovers. Who f-ing knows. And it’s not even clear by the picture’s end.
She eventually reveals her family’s history to the young couple over drinks in the hotel parlour, during a peculiar scene in which she gets Stefan to admit that he’s turned on by violence. As he recounts the details of some murders in nearby Bruges, she begins to caress him and they get all bothered.
Um… all while Valerie watches in horror.
Behaviours are all over the map: What was up with the parlour scene? Why did Valerie just watch before walking out? Why did Ilona wait for her on her balcony? Why did Valerie scream when she saw her? Why doesn’t she recognize her? Why does Stefan push her away after he begins making out with her?
And on and on and on. It just doesn’t make sense.
And yet ‘Daughters of Darkness’ is slightly enjoyable, if only because of its aesthetic quality: the seaside location is stunning, and its grandeur is emphasized by its limited occupancy. The tall ceilings, huge rooms, chandeliers date back to a bygone era, but it still manages to make an impression.
The picture is also slightly titillating, thanks to some gratuitous nudity showing Stefan, Valerie and Ilona in various stages of undress. Valerie is played by Danielle Ouimet (of ‘Valérie‘ and ‘L’initiation‘ fame) and she’s a spectacularly beautiful woman – so that’s something to look forward to here.
She’s even more attractive when she’s not disrobed: the outfits that were chosen for her, especially the long white dress coat she initially wore and the white, laced dress that the Countess gives her look stunning on her. I’m frankly surprised that Ouimet didn’t make more of splash in cinema.
In any event, no amount of female beauty can save ‘Daughters of Darkness’: it completely derails by the end.
After Ilona seduces Stefan, he decides to take a shower and tries to coax her in with him. She refuses, so he tries to force her in and she ABSOLUTELY FREAKS OUT, trashes the bathroom and falls on a straight razor. And he falls right on her. So when Valerie finds him, he looks quite guilty.
When they get back from burying her on the beach, Stefan attacks Valerie, who wouldn’t kiss him. So the Countess tries to smother him with… a glass dish cover. Seriously. It breaks in two and he accidentally slashes both his wrists with the halves. No, really! So, naturally the ladies drink his blood.
But it gets better!
They dump the body off the hotel’s concourse and drive of into the night. But it’s so late at night that dawn is about to break. So the Countess gets Valerie to drive at dangerous speeds so that they can arrive before the sun rises. Naturally, they have an accident and the Countess is impaled.
And burns to a crisp in the morning sun.
I’m not kidding!
Though ‘Daughters of Darkness’ is mostly sluggish and unexciting, its finale is a complete joke, ruining what could have been an okay art house horror film – kind of like a good Jess Franco offering. Alas, it just completely falls apart and never recovers, entering so-bad-it’s-good terrain.
Well, perhaps that’s why it’s sustained a cult status.
Date of viewing: July 23, 2017