Tuesday, October 18, 2016


Newlyweds Stephan (John Karlen) and Valerie (Danielle Ouimet) travel by train to the Belgian resort town of Ostend. It is winter, the off season for the tourist trade, so they are the only guests in the opulent hotel they check into for their honeymoon. They're the very picture of a happy couple and seem to have only one worry — Valerie is concerned that Stephan's wealthy, aristocratic mother will disapprove of her. Stephan also seems worried about this and goes out of his way to avoid communicating the news of his marriage home. He tells his nervous new wife that mother already hates her and hasn't even met her yet. The duo's hotel holiday is interrupted by the sunset arrival of the Countess Bathory (Delphine Seyrig) and her traveling companion Ilona (Andrea Rau). The Countess is stunningly beautiful, very mysterious and seems to just be one of the idle European aristocracy but Pierre (Paul Esser), the hotel concierge, realizes that he remembers seeing her on an earlier stay at the hotel 30 years before. And this is puzzling because she looks the same now as she did those long years ago...

The Countess immediately takes note of Stephan and Valerie and seems to have a peculiar interest in them. Next day the newlyweds take a short trip to the nearby town of Bruges. There Stephan's obsession with death is shown when they witness the removal of the bloodless body of a recent murder victim from the scene of the crime. Valerie begins to have some fears about her husband and is stunned by the strange look in his eyes as he stares at the corpse and even more concerned by his violent reaction to her distaste. Returning to the hotel they are greeted by the Countess; she convinces them to join her for drinks and conversation. During their talk it becomes evident (to the audience, if not to Stephan) that she may be the real Elizabeth Bathory of bloody legend and just might be dangerous. Their conversation's interruption by a retired policeman with an interest in the lady only adds to the questions as he brings up the subject of vampires and seems to suspect that the Countess had something to do with the death in Bruges. Soon it becomes apparent that Bathory has her sights set on Valerie and when she's afforded the opportunity to gain the heartbroken girl's confidence after a brutal beating from Stephan, she makes the most of it. Sending Ilona to seduce Stephan, the Countess puts in motion the cycle that will doom the couple and end in blood for all of them.

Daughters of Darkness is an amazingly beautiful film and one of the best examples of non-conventional vampire cinema. It refuses at almost every turn to follow the normal conventions of horror movies and because of this it becomes more impressive on repeat viewings. It flouts the typical vampire trappings that horror fans might expect and is the better for it. There are no canine fangs, no shape shifting creatures, no coffins hidden for daytime slumber or even any apparent fear of holy symbols. The Countess seems to have spent the last 400 years drifting around Europe, carefully choosing her victims and maintaining as low a profile as possible. (Sounds like a brilliant modus operandi for an intelligent creature of the night.) But as smart and clever as this movie is, it's often criticized as slow and devoid of any real scares. I think these views are sadly narrow and clearly miss the point. 

Director Harry Kümel set out to make a very different kind of vampire film, and by setting it in contemporary times and avoiding the clichés of the genre he's able to play with the expectations of his audience and move beyond them at the same time. The most surprising element of Daughters of Darkness is that the most hateful and feared character is not the vampire. Certainly the villain of the story is not the Countess (who is portrayed as always smiling) but Stephan, who is obsessed with death and has a cruel, violent streak. Behind his brooding eyes hides a devastating secret that makes him loathe himself so much that any relationship with his wife is doomed from the start. Indeed, it's when Stephan is forced to confront the reality of his relationship to "Mother" that things begin to fall apart. It's at this point that he commits the terrible beating of Valerie that causes the domino effect of all the horrific actions in the latter part of the story. Without his tragic character flaws the Countess might have had to move on without a new companion and Valerie might have been spared her blood-tinged kiss. To this end both Seyrig and Karlen give very good performances that make the film stronger than it otherwise might have been. In fact Seyrig is so good that I think that without her in the vampire role the movie would surely have failed. This is an endlessly fascinating gem of a film that, like a well-cut diamond, reveals new beauty and character when viewed from various angles and in different lights.

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