A Belgian-French-German co-production that has the delightful ear-solacing distinction of being a rare 1970s “genre” production where all the actors spoke their lines in English as opposed to having their voices horrifically dubbed in post-production despite the fact that most of the actors were Belgian, French, and German and only spoke English as a second or third language, Daughters of Darkness is the post-WWII vampire flick at its most exceedingly elegant and refined as a beauteous baroque bloodsucker piece of the subtly yet forebodingly erotic sort. Indeed, to compare the best of Jean Rollin and Jesús Franco to Kümel’s Sapphic vampire flick would be like comparing shit to gold. In that sense, Kümel is a cinematic alchemist because, despite his resentment towards the genre (in fact, he has denied it is even a horror film, stating, “This is not a horror movie…this is a style exercise…this is not meant to frighten.”) and mixed feelings towards the film, he still managed to assemble a masterpiece of the exquisitely erotically macabre that is big on style and low on sleazy sensationalism that is typical of so-called ‘Euro-sleaze.’ Directed by a man from the same puny low country that produced Roland Lethem (La Fée sanguinaire aka The Bloodthirsty Fairy, Le Sexe Enragé aka The Crazed Sex aka The Red Cunt), Thierry Zéno (Vase de Noces aka Wedding Trough aka The Pig Fucking Movie), Rob Van Eyck (The Afterman, Blue Belgium), Benoît Poelvoorde/Rémy Belvaux/André Bonzeland (Man Bites Dog) and Fabrice Du Welz (Calvaire aka The Ordeal, Vinyan), Daughters of Darkness is a ridiculously entrancing example as to why Belgians, especially the Germanic Flemish, are arguably the foremost masters of making the most artful, cultivated, and hermetic works of superlatively sick stomach-churning celluloid sleaze. Of course, compared to the aberrant-garde films of Lethem, Kümel's hyper-hypnotic vampire flick seems like a high-camp melodrama.
For their scenic honeymoon, the newlyweds stay in the royal suite of a lavish hotel located in seaside Ostend, Belgium, but unbeknownst to them, a coldblooded killer with a thirst for blood is running around loose in the local area and is responsible for the deaths of a number of blonde Nordic babes that look a lot like Valerie. When Stefan learns of the killings and walks by one of the murder scenes by accident while doing some sightseeing with Valerie, he becomes discernibly sexually aroused and even hatefully smacks his wife when she gets in the way of his view of a dead chick. A local retired police officer (played by Belgian actor Georges Jamin, who died a couple months after the film was completed) also seems somewhat 'aroused' by the deaths and he plans to discover who the killer, though it will ultimately cost him his life. Meanwhile, in a scene consciously stolen by the director from the famous scene of Marlene Dietrich making her big entrance in Ernst Lubitsch’s classic Angel (1937), ancient Hungarian lesbo vampire Countess Elizabeth Bathory (Delphine Seyrig) arrives at the Ostend hotel with her flapper-like Louise Brooks-esque muse Ilona Harczy (German actress Andrea Rau) and she immediately becomes entranced upon spotting Stefan and Valerie to the point where her ancient aristocratic sensibilities are not irked by the fact that the newlyweds have already occupied the royal suite that she hoped to stay in, even stating her girlfriend regarding the couple, “look how perfect they are.” The front desk clerk of the hotel, Pierre (played by German actor Paul Esser, who is probably best known for his roles in Wolfgang Staudte's Rotation and Der Untertan aka Man of Straw), is immediately disturbed upon seeing the Countess as he remembers seeing her at the hotel four decades ago when he was just a boy and he cannot fathom how she has not aged a day since then. Of course, poor Ilona is immediately jealous of the newlyweds, especially Valerie, and somberly confesses to the Countess, “I wish I could die.” Luckily for Ilona, she will get her wish, but not before whoring herself out for the Countess, who has a new love interest in the form of a buxom blonde newlywed.
While Stefan and Valerie intended to leave the hotel the next morning so that they can catch the cross-channel ferry to England so the former can introduce the latter to his supposedly rather bitchy mother, they decide to make the ultimately fatal mistake of staying a couple more days after meeting Countess Bathory and her cutesy sensual-lipped lesbo lover. A perversely penetrating psychopath of the wholly sensual and incessantly sinisterly smiling sort (as the director has confessed, it was Seyrig's excellent idea to play the role smiling) who can give one an agonizing orgasm with her mere erotically-charged words, Countess Bathory is a lethal lady-licking lesbo yet she has a warm and inviting persona that would not scare a fly, though her red/black/white wardrobes tell otherwise (the director had Seyrig wear these colors to conjure up feelings of the Nazi Schutzstaffel (SS), who of course wore the same colors). Indeed, on top of being a supernatural Sapphic bloodsucker, the Countess is a masterful ‘psychic vampire’ of sorts who preys on people's minds and emotions, which is certainly a trait she shares in common with crypto-homo Stefan, who will ultimately prove to be her rather weak rival in terms of vying for the affection of Valerie. In a somewhat hilarious if not equally awkward scene, Stefan makes a call to his supposed ‘mother’ in front of Valerie, but as the scene soon reveals, he is really talking to his old fag lover/sugar daddy (hilariously played by great Dutch auteur Fons Rademakers(!), who is probably best known for directing low country classics like Mira (1971) and The Assault (1986)). After telling his ‘mother’ that he has done the unthinkable by getting married to a young woman, the snide old queen responds with: “Whatever in the world will we do with her? Well, now, think of it—You working at whatever it is you can do, and that poor little, uh, Valerie, the day she hears about us—Oh, I hate to think about that. And you too! Of course, that’s why you called [clicks tongue] Surely you don’t really believe you would ever, ever do such a—such an ungrateful thing. I can’t wait for you to see our newest Laeliinae, Cattleya Violacea. And by the way, Stefan, be sure to tell that young woman…that Mother sends regards” (it should be noted that the connection between flowers and homosexuality is a subtle tribute to Marcel Proust). Rather enraged by the conversation with his so-called ‘mommy,’ Stefan unleashes his deep-seated internal rage and sexual frustration on Valerie by brutally beating her with his leather belt and subsequently assumedly raping her. While Valerie sneaks out of the hotel the next morning and attempts to get away on the next train out of town, the Countess uses her charms to convince her to stay. To keep Stefan incapacitated, the Countess sends Ilona to his hotel room to seduce him. Of course, things do not exactly work out completely as the Countess planned.
While Ms. Bathory attempts to flatter Valerie by calling her “little Edelweiss” (a reference to dumb European blondes, especially Swiss girls) and complimenting her ravishing good looks, the now-hysterical young wife eventually freaks out on her, abruptly stating, “I despite you. You’re disgusting,” and walking away, but of course the carpet-munching Countess follows her like a stud canine shadowing a bitch in heat. When Valerie defensively remarks that her husband loves her after the Countess mocks the genuineness of their relationship, Bathory makes the stereotypical dyke feminist misandristic argument: “”Stefan loves me, whatever you may think.” Of course he does. 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.” Meanwhile, Ilona seduces Stefan and they have fairly passionate sex. Unfortunately, a freak accident involving a shaving razor leaves Ilona dead after Stefan scares her by carrying her into the shower (whether Ilona dies as a result of the razor or due to her hinted aversion to water as a vampire is never made completely clear). Right after Ilona dies, Valerie and the Countess walk in on Stefan, who is staring at the dead vamp's naked corpse while in a state of abject shock. When Valerie remarks that she will call the police, the ever quick-witted Countess says to her, “Are you out of your mind? No one will ever believe it was an accident. You are out of your mind,” and subsequently kisses her on the lips in an erotic fashion. At the Countess’ recommendation, the three head to the beach during the early A.M. hours and Stefan digs a hole and buries Ilona’s corpse in it, though he almost buries himself in the process, thus demonstrating his weakness as a man who is not match for Queen Bitch Bathory, who ironically saves his life.
After driving back to the hotel, the Countess convinces Stefan to take a nap and uses the opportunity to seduce and ‘turn’ poor unsuspecting Valerie into a lesbo vampire. Naturally, Stefan becomes obscenely jealous when he finds out that the Countess has turned his darling into a member of the undead, so he attempts to take Valerie away, but the scheming bitch Bathory blackmails him by threatening to go to the police about Ilona’s dubious death. While both of them are ‘psychic vampire’ of sorts, Stefan seems like an autistic and emotionally crippled little boy compared to the ancient bloodsucking undead blueblood being that is the Countess. Of course, it does not take long before the Countess kills Stefan and feeds on his blood with baby vamp Valerie, who enthusiastically helps her new lesbo lover murder her hubby. After wrapping Stefan's body in black plastic bags, they dump it into a polluted creek like it is trash in what amounts to, like much of the film, a strangely humorous scene that is typical of Flemish/Dutch humor. While mutually deeply infatuated with one another as a sort of figurative quasi-incestuous ‘mother-daughter’ duo, their lurid ‘lady-lickers of the night’ love affair is ultimately cut short when Valerie uses her driving skills (or lack thereof) to accidentally crash the Countess’ luxury automobile after the sun burns her pale baby vamp skin and she loses control of vehicle. Indeed, after losing control of the car, Valerie crashes into a tree, which causes the Countess to be ejected from the car via the windshield where she is ultimately impaled after he body lands on a large protruding tree branch. After taking a stake to the heart in a cruelly ironic moment of pure happenstance, the Countess is subsequently burned alive when the totaled car explodes, thus leading the viewer to suspect that Valerie also perished in the tragic crash. Flash forward a couple months later in what amounts to a bittersweet twist ending, and Valerie has developed a satanically seductive persona just like her master the Countess, even parroting her look and voice, so that she can lure in young couples, thus continuing the vicious circle of hetero-hating lesbian-based vampirism.
While Daughters of Darkness is a truly exceedingly exquisite and extra-erotic example of ‘magical realism,’ auteur Harry Kümel would fine tune his talents for his somewhat superior and obscenely overlooked subsequent arthouse efforts Malpertuis (1973) and The Arrival of Joachim Stiller (1976). Additionally, Kümel’s early avant-garde shorts Anna la Bonne (1959), which is based on a poem by Jean Cocteau, and Pandora (1960), as well as his decidedly bleak Bergman-esque debut feature Monsieur Hawarden (1969), are regarded as some of the greatest masterpieces of Flemish cinema, even if the director has always been an outsider in his native homeland, especially after Daughters of Darkness was a big international success. Indeed, despite being what is arguably the only internationally successful Belgian film in all of cinema history, at least at the time of its release, Kümel found himself marginalized by the Flemish film community for a work he really had no interest in making, or as Belgian film scholar Ernest Mathijs wrote in the book The Cinema of the Low Countries (2004): “Of all the Belgian films of the early 1970s, a boom period in Belgian cinema culture, Les lèvres rouges (Daughters of Darkness, 1971) is probably the most talked about, yet least known. Although it still stands as one of the most commercially successful and academically referenced Belgian films, it is hardly screened today, and even its DVD and video distribution has been hampered by a series of difficulties, ranging from legal to aesthetic objections. This dual status is perhaps the most typical characteristic of the film, being both a high-profile example of Belgian cinema at its most international, and a consciously ignored part of a nation’s cinema heritage.”
Somewhat light on blood and bare boobs, Daughters of Darkness is a perfect example of subtly yet elegantly executed suggestive potency in the cinematic realm, thus it is almost an absurdity to describe the film as a work of ‘exploitation’ (unquestionably, ‘artsploitation’ would certainly be a better label). On top of being one of the most eloquent European ‘genre’ films of its time, the film is also a cryptic tribute to the great auteur filmmakers of European cinema history, as a formalistic flick that pays homage to everyone from Carl Th. Dreyer to Ernst Lubitsch to Josef von Sternberg to Georg Wilhelm Pabst to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger to star Delphine Seyrig’s beau Alain Resnais. Indeed, in terms of its enthralling atmosphere, oneiric tone, nuanced pacing, lavish ‘sets,’ and hermetic eroticism, Daughters of Darkness is like the Last Year at Marienbad (1961) of vampire flicks, albeit minus the impenetrable essence, as well as the European cinematic cousin of Richard Blackburn’s criminally underrated Lovecraftian lesbo bloodsucker flick Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (1973). The happy horror accident of a man who spitefully declared “we are going to do something nasty” and reluctantly decided to direct a film for a genre he had no interest in after his directorial debut was poorly critically received, Daughters of Darkness is indisputable proof that a pretentious ‘auteur’ will always direct better genre films than the average horror hack, even if he has little interest in directing them. As Kümel insightfully stated in the audio commentary track for the Blue Underground DVD release of the film: “I’m like Paul Verhoeven, you know…the films he doesn’t like to make are good movies and the films he likes to make are not so good.” Of course, the film also owes a great deal of its endlessly entrancing erotic magnetism and perniciously alluring atmosphere to frog diva Delphine Seyrig's singularly dignified performance as a lethally lecherous undead lady of the night. Apparently, the actress was so confident with her performance that she reassured Kümel regarding his concern that the two young leads were too old and not talented enough for playing the newlyweds by stating to him, “Don’t worry, they [the audience] will only look at me.” Indeed, as someone that has always found female vampires, especially those of the lesbo sort, to be oftentimes hopelessly nonthreatening and a rather blatant sign that the film was made for largely pornographic reasons, Seyrig proved that middle-aged broads can pull off brutally beauteous and superlatively sensual bloodsuckers in a fashion that no male actor can compete with. Of course, Seyrig was a vampire in the sense that she had the power to glamor any man, woman, or child that saw her on the silver screen, thus all she had to do was play herself in Daughters of Darkness. I, for one, can certainly not think of another feminist that was so innately captivating, cultivated, and carnally beguiling.