Friday, May 25, 2007

Daughters of Darkness – review


Director: Harry Kümel

Release date: 1971

Contains spoilers

I’ve read some comments about this classic film, that suggest it is not a supernatural vampire film, but simply about folk who drink blood. All I can think is that the edited version of this film must cut out some important aspects, as it is clear, through the film, that whilst the main character is base on Erzsébet Báthory she clearly is a supernatural, traditional vampire. That said the film is anything but a traditional vampire film.

Much like the blood spattered bride , this is a psycho-sexual drama, though the content is dissimilar. It contains improbabilities that, whilst they could have been problematic, simply add into the dreamy, nightmarish weave that is drawn around us.

The film begins with newly weds Stefan (John Karlen) and Valerie (Danielle Ouimet) on a train. In a beautifully bathed blue shot, they make love. However, as the film progresses it becomes apparent that not only have they been wed for just a few hours but that they barely know each other. It also becomes apparent that what hides below the civil surface is ugly and twisted. This is exemplified by a conversation they have. She asks does he love her and he evades the question. When she insists on an answer he says no and asks if she loves him. She answers in the negative and he says that makes them perfect for each other. At first glance this could be playful banter but something tells us that it is deeper than that.

The train halts, because of a derailment further up, and Valerie worries that they will miss the ferry to England. Stefan seems less than concerned and, it becomes apparent that he does not wish to travel to England, nor tell his mother about the wedding. When they get to an Ostend hotel she insists that he calls her. He gives the concierge (Paul Esser) the number but it is a note that says that the concierge should pretend that no-one answers.

Delphine Seyrig as Elizabeth BathoryAlso arriving at the hotel is Countess Elizabeth Bathory (Delphine Seyrig) and her companion Ilona (Andrea Rau). Pierre – the concierge – recognises Bathory and says so, but also states it is impossible, it was forty years previously when he was only a bell-hop and Bathory has not changed. She suggests it was her mother but then calls him by name, something he had not offered, which causes him to start.

looking at a murder victimBathory turns her attentions to the young couple, manipulating them with her sights firmly set on Valerie but using Stefan’s inherent sadism and sexual confusion. We see his sadism build over time. The couple travel to Bruge and see an exsanguinated murder victim, Stefan is fascinated but as Valerie tries to pull him away he, almost subconsciously, brutally knocks her over.

discussing BáthoryLater he and Bathory upset Valerie by talking about the deeds of Elizabeth’s ‘ancestor’ Erzsébet Báthory. As they describe between them her crimes, Bathory strokes his chest from behind and he seems lost in a passionate daydream, despite Valerie’s protests.

His sexual ambiguity, aftermath of abusewhich I mentioned earlier, comes in the form of his mother (Fons Rademakers), whom he does telephone eventually. Mother is a man and it is obvious that they have an intimate relationship. The conversation, and subsequent questions by his bride about ‘her’ reaction to the news of their marriage, leads to Stefan brutally beating his wife with a belt.

The ins and outs of the story are less important than the clever manipulation that Bathory enters into with Valerie and Stefan.Andrea Rau as Ilona This leads to her (somewhat jealous) companion being sent to Stefan and, ultimately loosing her life. After sleeping together, Stefan is in the shower. Ilona looks at him and he tries to pull her in, which she desperately tries to avoid. This is important as it might explain why she dies. Ostensibly she cuts her hand on a cut throat razor and then, presumably, falls onto the same razor. As a vampire this should not be an issue but two things spring to mind. We have had a throwaway line about vampires and running water, which she tried to avoid. Perhaps it weakened her. Bathory has also told her that she lives because of her, maybe she was sacrificed.

Stefan's improbable deathThe deaths in the film are a little odd. Not the murders we heard of in Bruge, but as well as Ilona’s death there is Stefan’s untimely demise. At this point Valerie is subject to Bathory’s will and has been bitten. During a struggle with Stefan a cut glass fruit bowl breaks in half, each side cutting a wrist, which the ladies drink from. It is an odd death, but the atmosphere of the film has so engrossed the watcher at this point that it doesn’t matter.

Ilona in vamp modeI mentioned the running water, garlic is mentioned but is not used in the film and the Countess has a hatred of sunlight (and bright artificial light). Fire can destroy a vampire. One interesting comment came when Bathory discusses her ‘ancestor’ and says that, back then, the holy king of France and even the pope drank blood to stay young. During the same conversation, when Valerie remarks that any woman would sell her soul to remain young and asks Bathory her secret the vampire replies that it is all to do with diet and plenty of sleep.

the first knitting vampire?Outstanding performance came from Seyrig as Bathory. She is manipulative and intelligent, playing the innocent to the hilt. In many respects she seems like a prototype for Miriam in the Hunger - but I’d put Bathory against Miriam any day. It seems strange that Stefan is, to all intents and purpose, the hero of the piece as he is thoroughly dislikeable. You begin to feel that Valerie will be better off with the infamous Countess than with her deceitful and sadistic spouse.

There is a policeman whom I have not mentioned yet, played by Georges Jamin, and it seems at first glance that he and Pierre are severely under-used in the film. However, they are nothing to Bathory and thus nothing within the film, serving merely as ciphers to give us pieces of lore and information.

iconic imageThe star of the show, however, is the cinematography. The film is a work of art and the story weaves that art around the viewer like a dream filled wih iconic imagery. The film might leave some cold, but I thoroughly enjoy it. That said, I must admit that I dislike the coda and think that the film could have ended without the ‘several months later’ section – a minor quibble. 7.5 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.


Anonymous said...

The missing link between Blood And Roses and The Hunger. Great twist on "Mother," nice tweaking of lore, looks fantastic. Minus: Bathory's breathy sing-songy voice became grating after a while.


Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Halek, I didn't mind her voice really but, as you say, it does look fantastic