Fright Fest 2018: Daughters of Darkness (1971)
Since its inception, American Horror Story has subsisted on pulling from decades’ worth of great genre fare for inspiration. The results run the gamut from highly entertaining to desperate and cynical. Take, for instance, the show’s worst season – Hotel – in which Lady Gaga plays an eternal Countess presiding over the titular Los Angeles establishment. Despite bright spots from ensemble regulars like Sarah Paulson and Denis O’Hare, Hotel had a meandering, improvised quality that led to a plodding narrative. The creative team miscalculated by leaning on the stunt casting of Gaga more heavily than the quality of the writing. In the end, one gets the impression that series creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk passed Gaga a copy of Harry Kümel’s masterful vampire film, Daughters of Darkness, and instructed her to do a campy impersonation of Countess Bathory (Delphine Seyrig).
While not the only awful thing about Hotel, putting Gaga’s showy, enigmatic persona front and center had me wondering how John Waters would have handled that season, given the same resources. (On that note, why haven’t Waters and O’Hare collaborated yet? That seems like a match made in bad-taste heaven!)
The bottom line: American Horror Story: Hotel should never, ever be confused with Daughters of Darkness.
While Kümel’s film kickstarted a notable trend of soft-core lesbian vampire films that reached their crescendo with Tony Scott’s 1983 epic, The Hunger, it bears noting that Daughters ‘ tonal sensibility exists more on the plane of art-house craftsmanship than anything-for-a-buck exploitation.
That being said, the film radiates a distinct, strong sensuality that adds to its power as a deceptively simple, character-driven piece. It breathes subtle emotions most horror movies can only touch through blatant dialog and even more blatant gestures.
Again, it’s not American Horror Story.
Stefan (John Karlen) and Valerie (Danielle Ouimet) are newlyweds traveling through Europe by train, only to find themselves diverted to a lonely seaside hotel. While Stefan is evasive toward Valerie’s requests for information – and even more reluctant to introduce her to his mother – things grow complicated when Countess Bathory and her assistant, Ilona (Andrea Rau) make a fateful stop at the same hotel. Immortal lovers who subsist on human blood, they quickly ingratiate themselves to the young couple, adding tension (sexual and otherwise), intrigue, and danger to the situation.
While Daughters exists in the “present” of 1971, Kümel cleverly subverts notions of modernity by making the seaside community a place – much like the Countess – frozen in a bygone era. The awkward desk clerk (Paul Esser) has been in his position for decades, and the hotel’s interior is well-preserved, completely oblivious to trends in modern architecture (it’s gorgeous and perfect – and why mess with perfection? There may be a greater theme at play here). Ilona drives the Countess in an almost comical red sedan, while the Van Helsing surrogate (a retired policeman played by Georges Jamin) follows the trail of the vampires via bicycle (something Michael Almereyda’s Nadja would reference years later). These little touches play into the alluring mystique of the vampire lore, lending the film a timeless quality.
When it comes to seduction and notions of “the banality of evil,” it’s fascinating to watch the Countess – her voice barely above a whisper at all times – work her brand of dark magic on the newlyweds. Meeting them in a common area one night for drinks and conversation, she appears in a blood-red nightgown, a pistachio-colored drink in hand. As visuals go, it’s as commanding and iconic as the “Lugosi Stare” in Tod Browning’s Dracula. Similarly, a scene of the Countess seated in the lobby, knitting as Valerie walks by, slyly downplays her immortal status by giving the impression of a “typical” woman who takes pleasure in simple things.
The Countess – and the film overall – is so subtle and nuanced that the depth of her manipulation is difficult to pinpoint unless you’re actively looking for it. She and Ilona lament their hunger early on, but the Countess looks to build a rapport with the newlyweds before figuring out what else she wants from them. Beneath their primal urge to feed, there is also a commingling of love and desire. That said, the cracks in the Countess’ façade grow more apparent as she pursues Valerie, sweeping her away from a train platform and instilling seeds of doubt about the emotionally and physically abusive Stefan; to the manner in which she invites the couple over for drinks – an insistence that seems less so because of Seyrig’s warm, disarming, and vaguely maternal demeanor.
In a sadomasochistic way, the escalation of abusive behavior and emotional manipulation between the Countess, Ilona, Valerie, and Stefan also causes the sensual elements of the story to resonate more strongly. Through it all, Kümel (and co-writers Pierre Drouot and Jean Ferry) remains impartial, keeping the storytelling free of any moralistic finger-wagging. While the love scenes feature nudity, their lack of sensationalism distances them from exploitation terrain, instead adding to the film’s core emotions of lust and longing. (As a contrast, Jose Larraz’s Vampyres would take this in the opposite direction several years later.)
Also of interest is the subtle manner in which Kümel uses visuals instead of exposition to establish the “rules” of this particular vampire world: a glimpse of a mirror that gives no reflection; an alcoholic drink discarded in a potted plant; the manner in which the Countess holds out the edges of her cape in a bat-like shape before enveloping Valerie; and the completely incidental appearance of a wooden stake. The filmmakers’ approach elevates these elements from well-worn clichés to something elegant, abstract, and altogether new.
Daughters is an extremely compelling effort that, unlike much of today’s mainstream entertainment, doesn’t use the notion of a predominantly female cast as a platform for heavy-handed messages of equality and reassurance. The Countess has no need for such things, as she is a luminous, confident, and take-charge presence from the moment we meet her; as soon as we lay eyes on Seyrig (seen through a widow’s veil), we’re pulled into the seduction – and, for 100 glorious minutes, we belong to her.
4.5 out of 5 stars
Jonny Numb (aka Jonathan Weidler) co-hosts the biweekly horror podcast, THE LAST KNOCK, alongside Billy Crash (aka William Prystauk). He can also be found on Twitter and Letterboxd @JonnyNumb.
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