“Let’s Get Weird” is a series written by Jon Dobyns of electronic group Twitch The Ripper. In it, he reviews and shares his thoughts on some of the lesser known horror classics. Be sure to pick up TTR’s new album Colorblind on iTunes.
The mainstreaming of the bloodsucker flick hits hard for horror fans. The genre has become so watered down that it’s mutated into something I cannot connect with. As much as I love seeing a gateway for younger, more impressionable fans, something has sucked the life out the genre. The overly dramatic, sobbing WB vamp transformed us skeptical genre lovers into haters. Tweens have taken over and have glommed our monsters, while Hot Topic pseudo goths have also claimed them for their own. Now, people can’t tell the difference between One Tree Hill and something of genuine substance. And we can’t forget the other end of the spectrum, which is just an overly sexualized HBO perversion of the genre. Somehow over the last decade or so, vampires have turned into a soap opera circus and our aggressive cynicism is quite understandable. These movies were supposed to ooze sensuality and an undeniable mood.
Daughters of Darkness – an unusual, stylish, artsy Belgian classic – has been one of my favorites for years. When compared to other titles in the genre, it shows an extremely low death toll and hardly spills any blood, and the subtleties scream like banshees. Daughters of Darkness still shocks more than the painfully obvious monster movie. With more than a touch of class, Daughters is one of the first to exercise the eroticism we see in mainstream vampire films today, as it purposely treads between art-house and horror. Every time I watch this film, I fall in love with it all over again as I recollect my thoughts on why I love the genre.
There is something deeper in Daughters that I rarely see in other vampire films. Bursting with rich metaphors of discovery, it echoes a stark intimacy as tension builds and collapses on its characters. Bringing it back to basics with a film shot so beautifully, any sheer bloodshed would have demolished the atmosphere draped throughout the film. Director Harry Kümel’s distinctly different approach to Daughters of Darkness is strangely reminiscent of the eeriness and brooding captured on early Universal and Hammer Horror films.
The film focuses on two newlyweds, Stefan and Valerie, who spend their honeymoon at a seaside hotel where they run into a mysterious duo, Countess Elizabeth Bathory (a play on the historical serial killer) and her young protégé, Ilona. The hotel concierge recounts the times he saw the Countess over the decades, causing him to recognize her ageless beauty. Almost simultaneously during the concierge’s storytelling, mayhem hits the headlines of serial killings nearby. But soon after this pair of twosomes gets acquainted, they become entangled in a web of desires crying out to be unclouded.
Cult icon Delphine Seyrig, who plays Bathory, takes the lead and leaves an everlasting impression of wonder on the married couple. Seyrig’s presence is enchanting in an old gothic fashion. Her take on Elizabeth Bathory is layered and convoluted. On the surface Elizabeth is charming and smooth, but chip away and you’ll find her vulnerable side; and dig deeper still and you’ll hit a manipulative, malicious center. She and Iiona – for their own carnal satisfaction – begin driving a seductive wedge between the newlyweds, and infatuation takes no time in setting in for either party.
Nevertheless, trouble in paradise is imminent as Valerie has the horrific realization that she has married a stranger. Her husband Stefan tries to keep the marriage hidden from his “Mother” because he believes she wouldn’t approve. Stefan soon reveals his secret perversions with a violent tempered belt-whipping on his wife. In suppressing his natural sexual identity, Stefan’s rage finds an abusive outlet of which Valerie becomes the walking evidence. It is interesting that this violent incident occurs directly after Stefan hangs up the phone with his “Mother,” or I should say, his bisexual mate.
“One must never be afraid to look deep down into the darkest depths of oneself. Where the light never reaches,” Bathory tells Valerie as she later begins to free herself from her abusive husband. Valerie shares with Stefan that she turns into something different whenever the Countess is near. The roles shift as Bathory helps Valerie awaken. Meanwhile, Iiona works on enticing Stefan with seductive poses outside their bedroom window so that the Countess is free to pursue Valerie. And though IIona is aware she is being replaced, she remains faithful as ever, giving Stefan no to time to give into temptation.
Valerie later ends up clinging more to the Countess as she continues to turn her world upside down. An interesting blend of sweet tenderness and bitter aggression is just what Valerie needs to be molded into the new perfect companion. During the time that Stefan continues to fall off the deep end, Bathory is there to reel in his soon-to-be liberated wife and make her one of her own.
The alluring factor in Daughters is that it is all very human. The characters’ transformations take place on an emotional plane more than a physical one. Cinematically, this is an interesting, modest, and satisfying method. And one of the more peculiar things is that there are no overly obvious mentions of vampires. Accompanied by the no fangs-in-the-neck scenes, there are few if any intentional deaths, although blood is spilt in accidental ways. A careless fight breaks out between Stefan and IIona in the shower, forcing her to fall on a straight razor. A glass dish shatters over Stefan’s face, causing the sharp edges to fly out and cut his wrists. Overtones of vampirism and sexuality sting in an elegant smoothness. Generally odd for a film of this nature, but more head-scratching is the realization that it is done with mystifying grace.
Ultimately, Daughters has what all other vampire films have. Violent thrills, sex and death – and a mood all executed in a suave manner, but still so much more than what skims the surface. You can interpret it anyway you like, but truth be told, Daughters is not a simple vampire movie. The suggestive dialogue, which shows restraint in its actions, proves to be highly effective for the imagination. It is something I personally miss in modern horror, and the skill to execute it well doesn’t come along often. The cinematography has a key role in emphasizing the drama with its elaborate reds, blacks and whites symbolizing the outbursts of murder and sex. Meanwhile, the blues and grays by the oceanside help enhance the foul play without dominating the scene. While messages of both female empowerment and sexual awakening are injected deeply into this cult classic about self-discovery, Daughters of Darkness will forever hold its own as a strange yet classy tale of the macabre that you need to sink your teeth into.