Once a month, my college has this thing called Cinema Slapdown (or I’m assuming they still do; they did when I was there half a year ago). A popular film is screened, and afterwards two people debate whether it’s any good. (Often it was two faculty members, but there were larger public figures on occasion–my favorite was when Rod Blagojevich acted like his usual idiot self, in this case while going to bat for the Elvis Presley vehicle Viva Las Vegas; and I don’t think he even mentioned Ann-Margret’s terrific dancing as part of his defense.) The first time I went, the film up for debate was Batman Begins. During the final portion of the evening, when audience members give their pieces of mind, one student asked the film’s detractor why he refused to include such elements as cinematography and art direction in his appraisal. Because this happened several years ago, my memory of the event is somewhat hazy, but basically someone onstage–quite possibly Ron Falzone, the moderator–shot down that wayward freshman by pointing out that a filmmaker’s job is essentially to tell a story, that a film can be as beautiful as a Boccaccio, but if its ideas are lacking in substance, the film is ultimately a failure. This made perfect sense in discussing Batman Begins, seeing as Christopher Nolan’s entire Batman trilogy has an impressive look and feel that nevertheless fails to support the director’s heavy-handed treatment of central themes.
Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness takes place in a European seaside resort, obviously a far cry from Gotham City. But like the Nolan Batman trilogy, this 1971 horror film, one of the finest examples of the very specific “lesbian-vampire thriller” (think Hammer Horror’s The Vampire Lovers or Universal’s Dracula’s Daughter), asserts itself through a striking, carefully developed mise-en-scène. Unlike Batman, however, Daughters of Darkness doesn’t attempt to serve any heady dissertations with its visual flair. The film is instead content to function as garish entertainment and is all the more satisfying for it. With a large budget allowing for a big-name lead and a well-stocked art department, Daughters of Darkness boasts a greater pedigree than its genre lineage might suggest, ignoring artistic pretension for bold characterization and a well-crafted story, which, at its core, simply concerns itself with the morbidly fascinating spectacle of lovers using and discarding one another.
Filmed on location at several gorgeous locales, including Bruges and Ostend, Daughters of Darkness is a modern hybrid of Sheridan Le Fanu’s novel Carmilla and the Elizabeth Báthory legend. The plot concerns a love triangle between newlyweds Valerie (Danielle Ouimet) and Stefan (John Karlen) and the Hungarian Countess Bathory (Delphine Seyrig), who, aside from the latter’s traveling companion Ilona (Andrea Rau), are the only guests at a lavish hotel. There are a smattering of other, minor characters, but for the most part, Kümel is charged with crafting a series of turbulent exchanges between these principle cast members. As played out against the hotel’s cavernous interiors, the characters’ melodramatic power struggles risk becoming stagey and tedious. Fortunately, this is circumvented by the ingenious casting of Seyrig as the Countess.
In Vampires and Violets, her excellent survey of lesbian representation in film, Andrea Weiss highlights Daughters of Darkness as more genuinely positive in its depiction of a lesbian relationship than, say, The Vampire Lovers. No doubt this is due in large part to Seyrig’s presence. Yes, the Countess’ relationship with her “daughters” adheres to the mother/daughter bond Weiss cites in a number of films featuring lesbian romance and astutely decries as undermining the legitimacy of lesbianism by filtering it through a more “recognizable” association. And yes, the Countess suffers a grisly death at the film’s end. But, as portrayed by Seyrig and the filmmakers, she also presents the same-sex coupling as especially desirable. As Weiss notes, “…the heterosexual norm turns out to be frighteningly abnormal and nightmarish… and the lifestyle of the lesbian vampire seems like a welcome alternative.” Seyrig embodies that alternative perfectly, irresistibly warm and charming without sacrificing an aura of danger.
Regardless of how good she is in the role, Seyrig’s vampire gains even greater magnetism from the actor’s appearance. This applies to the rest of the cast as well. Even if Ouimet and Karlen aren’t consistently great actors, we still buy them in their respective roles, because they look the part of conventionally attractive lovers. Even the Countess remarks, “Look, how perfect they are.” Because Daughters of Darkness concerns itself with people who don’t really know each other, people who often fail to see beyond the surfaces they project and so are startled when pieces of their true selves are suddenly on display, it is entirely appropriate that so much attention should be focused on the characters’ exteriors.
In keeping with this emphasis on physicality, the costumes worn in Daughters of Darkness are assaultive. It doesn’t matter if it’s only to be an intimate dinner for three; you can bet those three are dressed to impress. There is a stunning assortment of clothes, the best worn by Seyrig, of course. The Countess favors gowns in deep red, sparkling silver and pure white. Color-coding, when handled improperly, can be one of the more egregious examples of overwrought symbolism in film. An individual might read any number of things into a given color. (A hypothetical: “Does the green lighting in this scene suggest sickness? Jealousy? The protagonist’s passivity in light of the mounting pressures in his life?”) The colors in Daughters of Darkness point to the characters’ shifting allegiances (Valerie and the Countess both dress in all white when the former attempts to leave her husband) and mental states (Stefan’s cherry red robe declares his unchecked aggression). But the color palette employed here is so bold and relentless, dominating every scene, that it forgoes symbolism and demands to be savored for its aesthetic appeal.
Daughters of Darkness might have been unbearably arty and self-serious. Conversely, it might have been tiresomely campy. That the film manages to avoid both designations and still indulge in high theatrics elevates it beyond what potential viewers might reasonably expect. Rather than preoccupy itself with misguided attempts at navigating the twisted psychology of its central love triangle, Daughters of Darkness immerses us in the outrageously decorated world shared by its self-absorbed characters. This film doesn’t have time to brood. It’s having too much fun.