Daughters of Darkness July 13, 2018
1 Hr., 40 Mins.
aughters of Darkness (1971), a Harry Kümel-directed slab of sedate, sensual vampire erotica, is often grouped with the features of Jesús Franco, Jean Rollin, and Radley Metzger, pioneering filmmakers known for turning cinematic carnality into something hypnotic and artistically interesting rather than forthrightly trashy or exploitive.
In some ways, the comparison makes sense. As it went for this semi-respectable triad, Kümel’s creative period was at its most fecund in the 1970s; his films were more popular in Europe. Certainly, Daughters' downtempo, narcotic look and pace is in touch with Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1971), Rollin’s Fascination (1979), or Metzger’s Camille 2000 (1969), for instance. But to pit Daughters next to the features of these men is short-sighted. This scrappy triumvirate were arguably maestros of divine trash, only accidentally writing and directing works that seemed to be worth something in the years following their busiest eras.
In contrast, Daughters is worth something. Taking after the subtle erotics of Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour, from 1967, it values the power of suggestion. It is sensual, not sexual, and is more thrilled by its material pleasures — fluffed up by skin-caressing silks, high ceilings, ghostly candlelight, tony furniture, and decadent self-presentation — than it is the infrequent, though sometimes extended, flashes of bared skin and sexual confabs.
Lesbianism, vampirism, and bourgeois hedonism — characteristics which dependably drenched the best of ‘70s Eurotrash — are here. But to watch Daughters is to watch a director trying to turn what had at that point been an exploitive subgenre into something the arthouse crowd could luxuriate in. Unlike the products of those aforementioned directors, Daughters is genuinely competent. You do not have to strain to find the good because the film is good.
Kümel by then had only directed three films: Hendrik Conscience (1963), De Grafbewaker (1965), and Monsieur Hawarden (1969). None were tipped in the direction of the horror genre. With Daughters, Kümel was keen on making something reminiscent of German Expressionism and surrealism that was also modern and singular. This is made obvious by the way two of the female characters are molded to resemble the delphic Marlene Dietrich and the eternally chic Louise Brooks, who were defining actresses of the Expressionism epoch in particular.
The Dietrich of Daughters is played by the preternaturally glamorous Delphine Seyrig; the Brooks is portrayed by Andrea Rau. Seyrig recapitulates Dietrich’s almost-maleficent sexual aplomb; Rau’s mirrors Brooks’ effortless ability to make alienation and ennui look appealing. In Daughters, they're figures of ancillary titillation to tempt the primary characters, who are played by the salamandrine John Karlen and the lissome Danielle Ouimet. Karlen and Ouimet are newlyweds who have just checked into an ornate but little-populated hotel on the chilly Ostend seafront in Belgium. Seyrig is an affluent, bejeweled temptress who arrives shortly afterward with her docile, Rau-portrayed assistant in tow.
There is unmistakable tension in the air. It is there partially because Karlen and Ouimet married on a whim, and the former proves himself increasingly prone to exhibiting abusive, controlling behavior. It is also there because there is speculation that Seyrig might be the descendant of the centuries-old Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed, a vampiress who has purportedly maintained immortality by bathing in the blood of virgins. (Though the hotel’s paralyzed concierge swears that he saw this woman, looking as young as she does now, slogging about the hotel when he was a little boy. Maybe this is the real Báthory.)
Daughters of Darkness wallows in the uncomfortability stewing in the air. Karlen and Ouimet are immediately repelled by Seyrig (though it is clear that this is because they are anxious about how transfixing a presence she is), and yet they cannot help but run into her time and time again. Or easily perpetuate surface-level cool whenever she’s around. We understand why: Seyrig is perfectly cast. She is resplendent in Dietrich mode, ghoulishly sylphlike and dressed and gussied-up to the nines. Saliently featured are her jungle-red nails, which inadvertently sexualize everything she touches.
The movie is more libidinous than it is scary. But in Daughters' case, developing a creepy, hypnagogic mood is key, not one of terror per se. Kümel establishes this level-headedly, stretching the tension until it snaps like an overtaxed rubber band. But subversively, violence becomes a cathartic tool before sex does. And when we do witness any sort of cleansing act of fornication, it's glossily displayed, uncharacteristically modest, and wrapped in peril. Kümel is more concerned with building on our unease than he is in turning us on.
While watching, I was reminded of Tony Scott’s murky, stylish The Hunger, from 1983. That film, also a vampire movie featuring fluid sexuality, similarly weaponizes its overarching randiness. It too is sexy, but it’s sexy in such a way that complements the hovering disconcertion. We’re never distracted or feel like we’re watching cobbled-together elements of exploitation detritus. Though it might be tempting to watch Daughters of Darkness with the films of the previously mentioned Franco, Rollin, and/or Metzger on the brain, it is important to keep in mind that the movie in store is far more cerebral — and far better — than anything those movies or their respective directors ever had to offer in their prolific careers. With Daughters of Darkness, the vampire and erotica genres merge cohesively and tastefully. This is not trash; this isn't divine trash, either. It’s better than that. A-