Sitting at the intersection of the European art film, exploitation horror and ’70s porn chic, Daughters of Darkness is definitely a loaded package. While such a combination could have resulted in an uneven, bumpy mess, Daughters is so thoroughly whisked together that it definitely “works,” at least while you are watching it. It leaves a bitter aftertaste, however.
Start with the desolate, mammoth hotel setting, reminiscent of that artiest of arty art films, Last Year at Marienbad, complete with its female lead, Delphine Seyrig. She plays Countess Erzsébet Bathory, a vampire, who drops in at the hotel with her companion, Ilona (Andrea Rau), where the only other guests are newlyweds Stefan (John Karlen) and Valerie (Danielle Ouimet). The story consists largely of the Countess’s efforts to seduce and run off with Valerie while Stefan ineffectually resists.
Stefan is a weak antagonist for the Countess because she immediately recognizes that horror gets him hot. Far from a testosterone fueled bridegroom, he is in fact the kept boy of an epicene British aristocrat. Thus, the porn angle is not just a matter of nudity and fairly explicit sex. There is a sadomasochistic undercurrent emphasized by the hard-edged photography that gives everything a sharp, tainted glimmer, even (or especially) the violence.
Which, given the horror angle, is plentiful, imaginative, explicit and at times difficult to watch. The vampirism is the least of it. For example, after seducing Stefan, Ilona has a viciously violent demise. It is very effectively shot and cut, but more than a touch disturbing, particularly coming on top of an earlier, completely unmotivated beating that Stefan gives Valerie. In Daughters of Darkness, Gothic horror has to work hard to compete with all-too-Realistic everyday pathology.
Director Harry Kümel heightens this contrast by combining shimmering haute couture with grimy decay. The dank, ghostly off-season Belgian coastal settings inspire a kind of morbid fascination, but while Kümel exploits the locations for their lived-in tactility and presence, he makes no attempt to convince the action is anything other than an alternately grim and stylish nightmare. The hotel and surroundings are like a vast, empty stage, framing the oneiric action, in a constant interplay between fantasy and reality.
For example, the hotel concierge (who seems to run the cavernous establishment alone) immediately realizes the Countess is not what or who she claims, but keeps mum. Similarly, a policeman investigating some gruesome murders that are presumably the Countess’s work does nothing but make rueful observations to prove he recognizes what is going on. The result is a twisted world that works on its own, fevered logic, fascinating in its sleek chic, repulsive in its dark morbidity, both physically tangible and abstract. Our conflicted reactions result from the volatile mixture of intentions and approaches, but they are also what make Daughters of Darkness such a beguiling, bewildering object. It is not easy to like, but it is also almost impossible to ignore or forget.