By MARIE MAGINITY
Ah, Belgium: home of chocolate, waffles, pale ale and vampire lesbian films. Well, one, anyway. “Daughters of Darkness” is a cult classic dripping with sensuality, stunning photography and symbolism. Lots of symbolism.
The film starts off with a bang. Literally. The train goes speeding down the track as a young couple get about as creative as you can in a sleeper berth. Focus on the bride’s white bridal bouquet, looking quite virginal.
Yes, the horror movie begins with a young, honeymooning couple. Isn’t that cute? Their happiness is short lived, however. As they lie together in post coital bliss, the girl asks, “Stefan, do you love me?”
“No.” That was quick. The flowers aren’t even dead yet.
Valerie (Danielle Ouimet) is established from the start as sweet, innocent, compliant; in fact she has VICTIM written all over her. And that’s all you get, since we learn nothing about her or why the young lady married this strange man she just met. Or why Valerie is from Switzerland and has a French-Canadian accent.
Stefan (John Karlen) seems to be hiding something when he continually puts off telling his mother about their recent nuptials. He lives in an English manor, was raised in America, yet sports an accent of vague European origin. It works for his character, though, and manages to keep his Brooklynese at bay.
Now on to main event: the couple ends up being the only guests in an ominous, grand hotel in Ostend—until a vintage red sedan pulls up, building to one of my favorite entrances of all time: The Countess Elizabeth Bathory (Delphine Seyrig) who commandeers the film from the first glimpse of her ruby lips.
The countess is a mysterious, stylish Marlene Dietrich look-alike traveling with a pouty-lipped Louise Brooks clone, Ilona (Andrea Rau) whom she refers to as her “secretary.” Just two lonely ladies looking to make new friends and share a drink or two.
Seyrig’s performance is deliciously understated as she sets out to seduce the young couple—first the vampire gets Stefan off with descriptions of how she would brutalize and torture virgins in order to bathe in and drink their blood. Yes, Valerie, your husband has just been revealed as a very sick puppy.
Then Ilona hits on Valerie, Elizabeth hits on Valerie, Ilona hits on Stefan. Come on, folks, let’s just all rip off our clothes and jump in the pool.
But our lovely countess is the mistress of manipulation, and when she and Stefan butt heads over who gets to keep the victim, guess who wins. The husband is so unsettled at the prospect of calling his mother, he viciously lashes out at the conniving bitch who made him do it, driving her right into the arms of the consoling, honey-voiced vampire.
Worst honeymoon ever.
I can’t go further without mentioning the Mother scene, a compete WTF moment, and played over the top by Dutch filmmaker Fons Rademakers, who lives in an English manor and has a Castilian accent. Mother lounges on pink and lavender satin pillows, sniffs an orchid and chides his boy toy over the telephone for being foolish…or just unrealistic.
Oh, Mother, your time was too short. You are the stuff from which prequels are made.
About this time, the body count is starting to climb, resulting in three of the most camp, improbable death scenes in film history. First Ilona manages to stab herself in the back with a razor, Stefen ends up served under glass (ending in a picturesque, Jesus pose—is this symbolic?) and the countess goes the way of all vampires—on the stake…or does she?
At first glance, it seems Elizabeth met her doom and Valerie assumed the vampire’s persona in the epilogue, but the actress was dubbed with Seyrig’s voice, implying to me that the countess switched bodies at the last moment and survived to drink another day. You learn tricks like that when you’re 600 years old. I’m not sure which ending is better or which was the filmmaker’s intention.
This film is worth watching for the director’s stylistic surrealism, lots of eye candy and Delphine Seyrig’s outstanding performance. It’s also worth it to buy or rent the DVD just for the extras.
First is the commentary by Flemish director Harry Kümel who whines incessantly throughout the viewing. He chose to film in English, despite a mostly German and French cast speaking phonetically, and then complains about the girls’ acting. Karlen is too old and does not have enough “beefcake.” But he dotes on Delphine, who reassured him, “don’t worry, when I am on the screen, they will look at nothing else.”
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To contrast, then listen to the commentary with actor John Karlen who reminisces mostly about getting to romp with gorgeous, naked women, eat outstanding ham sandwiches during a night shoot, and make the acquaintance of another actor who doubled in real life as gourmet chef, in addition to meeting Ouimet’s husband who owned restaurants, and staying for two weeks in Paris at Seyrig’s villa. Hopefully, those moments made up for the show down between Karlen and Kümel when the director slapped Danielle, who went crying to her costar. So, Karlen slugged him.
But let’s not end on an unhappy note. Here’s something to look for. In Ilona’s death sequence on the bathroom floor, you’ll notice the vampire has a tan line.
Marie Maginity is an actor, director, teacher and free-lance writer, living in Bucks County, PA, with one husband, two daughters and two cats. She is known in the Dark Shadows fanfiction world as Mad Margaret.