One of the artiest exploitation movies of the ’70s, the Belgian vampire thriller Daughters of Darkness features such extraordinarily beautiful cinematography—and, to be frank, such extraordinarily beautiful women—that it’s tempting to seek some deeper significance, as if the movie is more than just a tastefully executed shocker. Alas, director/co-writer Harry Kümel’s cult-favorite movie doesn’t reward close scrutiny, and in fact the picture’s biggest flaw is a ponderousness suggesting Kümel himself thought he was making a Grand Statement. Shot with English-language dialogue despite its European origins, the picture originally ran a plodding 100 minutes, though a widely available expurgated cut is only 87 minutes long. Which version suits which viewer is a matter of taste, because those who get hooked on the picture may want to savor every possible frame.
When the story begins, an attractive newlywed couple arrives at a seaside resort, which is empty because the year’s tourist season has ended, and they learn that several murders has taken place nearby. Worse, the victims were drained of blood. Then, when a beautiful countess arrives at the hotel with her female companion/servant at her side, the couple falls under the countess’ charismatic spell. It turns out the countess is a centuries-old vampire with nefarious designs on the couple. So begins a strange odyssey filled with betrayal, death, and sex. There’s nothing new about the eroticized-horror formula, so what makes Daughters of Darkness unique is its intoxicating style. Kümel treats every shot like a photographic art project, filling the screen with arresting compositions and subtle textures; thus, when he strings his beguiling images together with meditative editing and mournful music, he creates a bewitching atmosphere.
Contributing to this effect are actresses Delphine Seyrig, as the countess, and Andrea Rau, as her servant. Seyrig is a stunning blonde with aristocratic bearing who, at first, seems as if she’ll be an ice queen—so when she reveals fragility, insecurity, and need, a quietly textured performance emerges. Rau is a sensuous brunette, the natural visual counterpart to Seyrig, and though her presence is less nuanced that Seyrig’s, Rau affects a plaintive quality. (As the newlyweds, John Karlen is enjoyably sleazy and Danielle Ouimet, the cast’s weak link, is merely lovely.) In the movie’s grandest contrivance, the countess is revealed to be Elizabeth Báthory, the infamous 16th-century Hungarian aristocrat who bathed in the blood of virgins because she felt doing so would preserve her beauty; like Kümel’s rarified pictorial style, this allusion to history gives Daughters of Darkness a sophisticated sheen lesser films of its ilk lack, but not actual depth.
Daughters of Darkness: GROOVY