In a climate when most horror movies rely on either shock value or a cheap “gotcha” scare, it’s sometimes hard to remember when horror movies didn’t function that way. Belgian filmmaker Harry Kümel’s film Daughters of Darkness (1971) is a perfect example of this seemingly lost mode of horror film, and has earned its reputation as one of the most beautiful and interesting vampire films to date.
Stefan and Valerie (John Karlen and Danielle Ouimet) are a recently married couple on the way to their honeymoon when they make a detour and stay at an opulent, yet empty hotel. Shortly after arriving, another pair of guests appears on the scene, Countess Elizabeth Bathory (Delphine Seyrig) and her “secretary” Ilona (Andrea Rau). In a virtually plotless film, these four characters are able to create a sumptuous ballet, running the gamut from intense seduction to the eroticism of fear. Every performance in this film is winning, whether it is Delphine Seyrig seducing anything that moves, in a fun, sly manner or John Karlen showing only what is necessary and holding back a secret from his wife. The characters are all interestingly structured and acted, and the deft direction is also worth noting, as the locations are as important as the characters. Kümel’s attention to detail and his compositions are often beautiful and occasionally breathtaking. One scene has the camera take the point of view of a corpse, with very interesting implications.
Again, this is another stand out job from Blue Underground and is one of the most impressive A/V presentations I’ve encountered for a cult classic horror movie. This is a film where the visuals really are the star; it’s all atmosphere and mood. Luckily, it been reproduced with loving care on this disc. The fine details reproduced in fabrics and hair are impressive, and the occasional pop of red jumps out nicely and never bleeds. There are no grain structure issues to speak of, and it’s a nice filmic looking presentation. On the audio side of things there are English and French audio options, and I switched back and forth at times to test them against each other and heard no problems. The English track is very clear and is the preferred option since the film was shot in English and the cast’s performances were retained. There are also English, French, and Spanish subtitles depending on need.
There is a very generous slate of features on the disc as well and two audio commentaries kick things off. The first with co-writer and director Harry Kümel, and the second with film journalist David Del Valle and actor John Karlen. Next up are a series of interviews: co-writer and director Harry Kümel and co-writer/producer Pierre Drourot provide a nice talk about the shoot, stars Daniell Ouimet and Andrea Rau are on hand separately to discuss the project, and lastly a trailer and a few radio spots round things out. There’s also an entire film as a bonus feature to be had! The Blood Spattered Bride is another take on the Carmilla story from Spain released in 1972 and makes a fine companion piece to the main feature.
From its opening credit sequence to the beautiful penultimate scene, which references Vlad the Impaler, Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness brings vampire erotica in film to an entirely new plane. Chiefly, this is because it doesn’t rely on gratuitous sex and violence like so many of the films of this sub genre that were made around the same period of time, riding on this film’s coattails. This Belgian/French co-production is a watershed in 1970’s European Horror Cinema, beautifully melding sex, violence, and style into a film that visually plays in Kubrick territory while being able to stand on its own in terms of its individual merits as a unique piece of art. One of Kümel’s only “fantasy” films, the director plays nearly every moment perfectly, creating a hypnotic vision of seduction and fear, where morality and humanity are on either ends of the same seesaw.