Daughters of Darkness

4 out of 5

Directed by: Harry Kümel

It’s European; the title and artwork prominently featuring its two lead women, close together, can have some erotic and gay undertones; and you’ve perhaps stumbled across the title as being associated with vampires. You maybe haven’t seen a lesbian vampire flick before, or explored erotic horror, but those pieces can still somehow be assembled into softcore imaginings of glossy imagery, bright red blood, and a non-plot that’s drapery for lots of skin. As Daughters of Darkness kicked off with its lead couple, Valerie and Stefan (Danielle Ouime, John Karlen) vociferously making love in the cabin of their train to Belgium, I had that assemblage going through my mind, and was kinda checking off its qualifiers with the breathless sex and chintzy music.

Hm… except director Harry Kümel captures this scene with an interesting eye: roving, and as violent as the two participants. The scene surely functions as erotica, but it also doesn’t function just as eye candy – the lighting; the tone; we’re being set up for everything to follow. And that “chintzy” music twists its playful edges into something edgier; this is François de Roubaix, delivering a masterful score that dances along with the complex interplays that are to follow.

Daughters of Darkness can still be read at its highest level, if so wished: our couple arrive at a hotel and take the attention of another guest, Countess Elizabeth Báthory (Delphine Seyrig), who seems to alternate flirting with either Valerie or Stefan, pushing them both to actions / thoughts that betray their newlywedded bliss and leading to various sexy and / or murder times. You can just revel in Seyrig’s rich acting and delightful costuming; the heftily juxtaposed red / white / black color palette. But it’s maybe harder to ignore the visual and thematic layering that the film offers, extending from that very first scene and continuing strongly throughout – Daughters is the type of flick that you catch yourself being entranced by; you start watching and then suddenly you’re an hour deep. Partially this is due to the delicate balance of mystery and intrigue, in which we’re plain-as-day talking about the famed Báthory’s crimes, but our current Countess – who the concierge seems to remember as having visited the hotel some 40 years back, looking exactly the same – feigns innocence over the relation; maybe she doesn’t have a reflection in her compact mirror; and why is it that retired detective (Georges Jamin) is poking around, mentioning the grim murders of young women that’ve been happening recently? But it’s also very much due to the film’s subtext concerning sexuality, and relationships, and control: Stefan’s contentious relationship with his “mother,” which automatically reroutes the couple’s “bliss” as it triggers violent, impudent reactions from him; The Countess’ master / slave relationship with her “secretary,” (Andrea Rau) the once doted-on woman feeling pangs of jealousy as Báthory’s attentions shift to Valerie. And whenever the movie feels like it’s being too crafty or obtuse, it unleashes some very direct moments, or delightful images of, for example, the Countess’ cloak unfurling like Dracula’s cape. A typical lesbian vampire flick this is not.

Of course, some of the aforementioned mystery can also come across as a bit questionably vague. That detective, for example – his role in the film feels highly unnecessary, included solely for some mustache-twirling moments that ultimately amount to nothing. And Stefan’s “family,” while creating a fascinating psychological conundrum in trying to understand the character’s psyche, also kinda sorta sets the whole setup of the movie in question: Val and Stefan are traveling to see Stefan’s mother to announce their marriage, but it becomes clear he has no intention of actually getting there – the hotel is a permanent stayover. But this is only assumed, and so is a little too clearly just an excuse to get our characters from A to B, and give Stefan someone to call over the phone (“mother”), which can then be the jumping off point for certain actions amidst the trio.

By the same token, you can get away with stuff like that when your whole film has a dreamlike bent to it, which Daughters of Darkness certainly does. And you can get away with even more when some of your leads – Seyrig, Karlen – are eminently watchable, and the soundtrack is on point, and the cinematography (Eduard van der Enden) makes the most of a low budget to enhance the erotica undertones to best serve a surprisingly rich story, worthy of rewatches for simple camp value, but also for study.