DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS (Les Lèvres Rouges)
1971/Director: Harry Kümel/Writers: Pierre Drouot, Harry Kümel
Cast: Delphine Seyrig, John Karlen, Danielle Ouimet
I am not the biggest fan of what one may term Eurohorror (or in less respectful though often accurate terminology, Eurosleaze) but I have seen my fair share over the course of my movie watching life. It is the type of thing I feel like I should like, or that I would like without forcing myself to. I have adjusted to a lot of stuff out of Italy and some from Spain, but as far as the films out of France goes -in general to be honest and not just horror type- I am usually left a bit confused and overly bored. I remember trying so hard back in the early days of VHS to find a Jean Rollin film to rent and finally found one. I forget the name but it was one of his lesbo-vampire things. While I have to say it, and the other films of his I have seen, looked okay as far as the photography and set designs went I just could not get into the slow, dreary pace of the film or the overly seriousness of the story. Some counties I have hardly even seen a single film, like Germany for example. A couple of course but not enough to say I watch German films. Overall most European films leave me wanting something and they tend to all reek of pretentious art house drek or film student fodder. But there are exceptions of course, and the 1971 film Daughters of Darkness by director Harry Kummel is one of them. The film is not a French film exclusively as far as I can tell. The production companies seem divided between France, Germany and Belgium. The languages used were English (yes it was shot in English and the accents are genuine) and Dutch. But it certainly has the feel of some of the better French gothic horror style films of the 70’s. But more than the look I find the story, editing and acting moves along at a reasonable, though still Euro-slow, pace that kept me engaged with the film rather then having me fast-forward the film just to get it all over with. If more of the Eurohorror genre had been done like this I would definitely have become the cultured fan I wanted to be long, long ago.
In most ways the film’s story line is really nothing special for a gothic/vampire style horror film. A couple newly weds (John Karlen –from Dark Shadows- as Stefan and really 70’s style hippie looking Danielle Ouimet as Valerie who looks like somebody Bob Guccione would have pursued for a Penthouse photo shoot) are driving through the continent so Stefan can get back to see his mom and surprise her with the news of their secret marriage. The real surprise of course is waiting for Valerie when she finally gets to meet “mom” but sadly that never happens. Weather conditions turn bad and the train is delayed and so they have to stay a few nights in an enormous and lavish hotel in Ostend, on the seaside in the Flanders region of Belgium during the off season when no one else seems to be staying there. They are soon being entertained by none other than the mysterious Countess Elizabeth Bathory herself (we know it is the Countess Bathory because that is the name she actually uses and signs into the hotel with), played by the European cinema icon Delphine Seyrig. Well, she must be a cinema icon as all the reviews I read call her that, but I have never seen her in anything else but this one movie as far as I know. But she is most stately and becoming to be sure and has that old screen diva charisma, the kind that fills the screen with her presence because she is hamming things up and competing with the other actors for every frame of film. But it all works well enough here in this film for me and I would like to see her some other things. Traveling with the Countess is her “assistant” the lovely but equally creepy Ilona (Andrea Rau) who sports a bobbed off near boyish haircut and cute little French or something like French accent. Also thrown into the mix is the suspicious desk clerk who is certain the Countess is the same Countess he saw at the hotel when he was but a lad of twelve years, and the prying, snooping police detective, whose character the film could have really done without. But without his character there would hardly be anyone left really. But the character of the inspector actually creates some holes and flaws in the story that bring the film down a few notches for me. You either need a character like this to create that cat and mouse tension with the antagonist or just leave them out altogether. Think about how many horror movies never have a single cop in them and still skate by even as every other teenager or woman in he community is being brutally murdered. The inspector (retired it seems) is investigating some recent murders in the town of Brugge, where the bodies of beautiful young women have been found murdered and drained of all their blood! Yikes! Beautiful young women drained of blood? The sudden appearance of Countess Elizabeth Bathory? A doorman who is certain she has not aged in many decades? My God, what does it all mean? Okay, I told you the story here was nothing you can’t run to the kitchen for a peanut butter sandwich for and just let the film keep running a little. But the story itself is a tried and tested formula and the director and cast and crew handle it in above average fashion. And the sory line in these films is not what the whole experience is about anyway.
There is a certain dark charm to film that pulled me in and kept me interested even after repeated viewings .There is very little violence to speak of and even then it is a little outlandish and comic bookish really. One death scene in particular, involving a cracked punch bowl and slit wrists, is simply corny. The death scene of Bathory (come on, it is not spoiling anything to say the Countess is going to die is it?) was, on the other hand, well done and even savagely brutal for the time. The ending where Valerie’s body has become possessed by Bathory’s spirit was a bit ore than obvious and a little slow in its unfolding, but so many of these type of films end that way and it supposed to be some sort of shocking twist but never really is. But the scenes between Bathory and the disturbed young couple of Stefan and Valerie are great. Stefan has issues to be sure, one cold speculate it is a “mother” complex but lets not give any of that away, okay? I am trying to move away from too many spoilers in my reviews though I can't seem to get away from it 100%. There is a great line as Stefan and Valerie look at each other in bed and Stefan says (paraphrased) “I don’t love you and you don’t love me. We’re made for each other.” An exchange between Bathory and Stefan in a small coffee room is simply worth several replays, where they are sending one another into orgasmic fits simply by talking about torturing young maidens with red hot pokers. Valerie ruins the scene with her screams of disgust, but it is truly a classic gothic horror moment. The lush sets and photography by Eduard van der Enden (which I totally got off IMDB okay) are pleasant to behold and the soundtrack is pretty 70’sish but that is not a bad thing necessarily. It is one of those films where a reviewer may say something like “I cannot lavish enough praise on this film!” (Suspiria is one of those films too) but let me tell you it is not without problems here and there, as any horror or vampire/Countess Bathory type film tends to be. I mean, look at the new Fright Night II for a really dismal Bathory story. I am not a fan of them for the most part but this one is doable and to be honest they could have named her something else and it may have worked better. But they may have called her Countess Dracula at that time in history and that would really have spoiled things. I don’t think Elizabeth Bathory was a well known figure in the mass consciousness back in the early seventies (okay, I was like 13 when this film came out and I knew who she was, but I am talking about normal people, not ten year old boy whose favorite song was Riders on the Storm by The Doors) and so it is not as corny as using the name in films now. All I can say is this; I have seen the film a few times and will probably sit through it again. And again, too bad more Eurohorror films did not come out like this one but I thiink there has to be more and am looking into it.