Sacrificing oneself for love is a too cute and too familiar interaction thrown in movies like strawberry jam. It is simple, ordinary, and expected. Romance in horror films, however, is chaotic, bloody, and revolting. Horror and eroticism are an unexpected sweetness, so go ahead and serve that with your morning toast. Monsters have indulged in romance with mortals as we have seen in The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) to more recent movies like The Shape of Water (2017). It’s a classic story about a beautiful woman and a hideous beast, but even cinema changed the familiar storyline.
The 1970s opened an endless coffin of vampire films about love, sexuality, and the survival of the fittest. Open relationships, casual sex, gender fluid romances, and bloodthirsty villains painted the theater towns crimson red. The decade brought light to cultural issues that never seemed to be reflected on the mirrors of prior vampire films. Among the new era of bloodsucking creatures was Hammer’s The Vampire Lovers (1970), Stephanie Rothman’s The Velvet Vampire (1971), and the story of bisexual seducers in Vampyres (1975).
There is one film that was released exactly 50 years ago that redefined the resurrection of vampires in cinema. Harry Kümel’s 1971 cult classic Daughters of Darkness analyzed vampires not as threats or villains to society, but as carnal creatures who seek pleasure and survival just like their human counterparts. The role of the damsel in distress left ashes in burnt movie houses, but ignited a new and revolutionary pedestal that made women powerful and thirsty for sex. Thus was the rise of the female vampire.
Sexuality dominates the screen as Countess Elizabeth Báthory (Delphine Seyrig) bridges the gap between romance and horror. She is not afraid to listen to her desires and she learns that life isn’t always about survival, but about the connection and romantic relationship you build with someone regardless of their gender. Prior to this film, 1970s vampires were mostly male villains who terrorized mortal victims who were often women.
The countess is the Dracula here. She’s the master, the creator of terror and sex. That is until she falls in love. She’s tired of living a long life and preying on young girls to keep her endless youth. She’s so bored with this immortal luck that she wants to love and be loved.
Countess Báthory and her so-called secretary Ilona (Andrea Rau) arrive at the hotel where Valerie (Danielle Ouimet) and Stefan (John Karlen) are honeymooning. Ilona, the dark-haired girl with red lips, stands pale but chic and erect to all of Countess Báthory’s orders. She’s the lover losing her spot to a human, and like the countess, she’s a vampire who wants to feast on the blood of the honeymooning couple.
The developing relationship between the vampire protagonist and Valerie is transgressive in regards to the previous movies and myth of Countess Elizabeth Báthory. The Hungarian countess was rumored to have been a vampire because she tortured, killed, and drank the blood of virgin girls between 1590 through 1610. Her reasoning was due to her belief that she would never age or become ugly. The same year as the release of Daughters of Darkness, Hammer Film Productions released Countess Dracula, starring Ingrid Pitt as the woman who remains youthful only when she’s drinking virgins’ blood. Eventually she takes on her daughter’s beauty and persona to have sex with a younger man.
Seyrig’s portrayal of the countess in Daughters of Darkness has the qualities that male vampires had in previous horror films. She is less interested in living forever or chasing after young men for sexual pleasure. She wants love that is stronger than life and even stronger than death. Kümel’s countess is the anti-Christ, the sex predator, the seducer, and the character fighting to get what she wants. What she wants is to seduce Valerie since she first saw her upon arrival at the hotel. We see the countess stop Valerie from leaving after Stefan bruised her with sadomasochistic sex and frightened her with his arousal at the killings of girls and his interest in the Báthory murders.
“Soon you’ll love me as I love you now,” the countess reassures Valerie after kissing her palm. Despite her power, her ways of persuasion, and seduction resembling that of male vampires, Countess Báthory doesn’t lose sight of her feminine qualities of caring and being a mother figure, which she practices when warning Valerie of masochistic men and her husband, Stefan.
“That’s why he dreams of making out of you what every man dreams of making out of every woman—a slave, a thing, an object for pleasure,” Countess Báthory tells the worried newlywed bride.
Daughters of Darkness was more than a visually pleasing art film with a storyline of a bloodsucker looking for eternal youth. It was a transgressive film that presented feminist qualities in a genre dominated by men. While vampire films had male leads preying on female victims, Daughters of Darkness had a predator with power, sexual and romantic cravings, and seductive qualities to lure her victims. The 1971 film presented a monster with physical resemblance to humans: no fangs, no daily cape, and no bat transformations. Countess Báthory was a victim in the human world since she was always suspected of murdering girls. She was tired of living life forever. She wanted love that transcended life and death.