On the first level, Daughters of Darkness is a film about a newly married couple who encounter an intriguing, if overly familiar and insistent, traveling royal on the Continent, who tries to seduce them into her strange and ultimately deadly web. The husband and wife are tempted, spied upon, and ultimately driven to desperation. But they might have already been desperate before the Countess Bathory crossed their path. Stefan and Valerie, played John Karlen and Danielle Ouimet, respectively, begin their story on a train, where they make passionate (and fairly graphic) love. Afterwards, she asks him if he loves her, and he says, “Don’t you know?”
“I want you to say it.”
It’s playful teasing, unless it isn’t. Valerie is Swedish, Stefan English, and they are on their way back to England so he can introduce Valeria to his mother, who he has already told her will hate her. They get delayed, and stay in a hotel, where there are more delays still. And maybe Stefan will go off on his own, and send for Valerie later. She’s kind of a naïf, but even she doesn’t buy that one. There’s something secretive going on, and it takes a bit of the glow away from their honeymoon.
It’s a gloomy honeymoon already, since they are the only two people staying in their hotel in Ostend, Belgium. It’s the off season, rainy, misty, and totally lonely…until the Countess Elizabeth Bathory arrives. This astounds the concierge, since he had seen her before at the hotel, 40 years ago when he was a bellboy. And she looks exactly the same.
Most horror fans will know the grim, true legend of Elizabeth Bathory, the 16th century Hungarian countess who supposedly bathed in virgin’s blood to maintain her youth and was eventually walled up in her own room to starve to death after murdering hundreds of local peasant girls. This Elizabeth is not that one, of course, but her direct descendant, who travels around Europe for want of anything else to do. She has a gamine young companion, with short hair and an unhappy expression, who at times is devoted to her and other times desperate to get away.
Elizabeth has arrived in Ostend coming from Bruges, where there have just been a series of murders of young women. She is intrigued with Stefan and Valerie, and tries to insinuate herself into their company. And though Stefan is deliberately standoffish, when Elizabeth begins detailing the crimes of her ancestor, he becomes intrigued, even turned on, while Valerie is horrified. And Valerie is likely the true target Elizabeth has for her attentions
It’s these additional dimension that adds to Daughters of Darkness‘s rather conventional set-up for a vampire story: young innocent couple runs into an alluring, deadly monster. But Valerie may have already brought her own monster in the form of her husband, whose moodiness is constant and whose passion may as quickly turn violent as it does sensual.
Daughters of Darkness is moody, and deliberate in its pace and scene construction. There’s very little blood or violence in the first half of the picture, and though it could be fairly called an erotic film it isn’t gratuitously so. It’s a film about seduction and its forceful counterpart, about violence in sex. It’s sumptuously made, with vivid colors, occasionally approaching the surreal with the often employed red lighting. And the red blood, which when it appears is copious has that not quite real but somehow worse for it quality fake blood had in the ’70s.
Aspects of the film are based on older vampire stories, most particularly Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla”, which has a traveling pair of mysterious women, older and younger, who attach themselves to a young girl. However, there’s not much of a plot to the film. The murders in Bruges are a catalyst for bringing a detective into the hotel, who watches Bathory, but the film is not about the mechanics of its story, but more focused on the emotional turmoil: Valerie’s dawning realization that her husband isn’t what she thought he was, Stefan’s roiling emotions and deep, dark hidden sides. Ilona, the countess’s companion, is desperate to get away from her and unable to leave, while Elizabeth is in complete control of everything around her, or wants to appear to be. It’s a swirl of passion and mystery that leads to some wild choices, and wild, bloody violence.
The vampirism in the film, though obvious to anyone who goes so far as to look at the box art, is woven rather subtly into the story. There are no scenes of fangs suddenly growing in mouths and wild spasmodic hissing. Little by little, the danger of the characters is insinuated, until it ultimately becomes bloodily overt. It’s a slow burn of a horror film, equally mesmerizing and titillating.
Daughters of Darkness has been released of 4K UHD by Blue Underground. The 50th Anniversary Limited Edition includes 3 discs: the 4K UHD disc and a Blu-ray disc, each of which contain the film, and a CD with the really moody soundtrack by Francois De Roubaix. Extras on the disc include three feature-length commentaries, two previously released commentaries: one by director Harry Kumel and one with John Karlen and journalist David Del Valle, and a new commentary by critic Kat Ellinger, who wrote a book on the film. Video extras include three archival productions: “Locations of Darkness” (22 min), which contains interviews with Harry Kumel and co-writer Pierre Drouot; “Playing the Victim” (16 mins) which contains an interview with Danielle Ouimet; and “Daughter of Darkness” (8 min), which contains an interview with Andrea Rau, who played Ilona. There are also trailers, alternative U.S. main titles, radio spots, and a poster and still gallery. There is also a booklet with an essay on the film by Michael Gingold.