Monday, October 20, 2008
The Remains of a Remembrance
For a long time I’ve put off a second viewing of DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS, simply because I was worried that it wouldn’t live up to what I thought about it that first time. Every once in a while you stumble across a film that feels like there’s something unexplainable in its essence that is exactly what you’re looking for when you’re watching these obscure titles and you can’t quite be sure if it really was that good or if you just wanted it to be. After seeing it again, I’m relieved that DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS lived up to my memory and maybe even surpassed it. It’s a vampire movie but to call it ‘just’ a vampire movie is doing it a huge disservice. It has a mood, a feel, a commitment to itself that is unlike the past ten movies that you just saw and it’s not easily forgotten. To me, in some ways, DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS is extraordinary. Say that as two words—extra ordinary. That’s the best way I can think to describe it.
A honeymooning couple (John Karlen and Daniele Ouimet) have just arrived at an enormous hotel on the Belgian shore. As it is the off-season, they have the place all to themselves. Until, that is, the arrival of one Countess Elizabeth Bathory (Delphine Seyrig), traveling with her secretary Ilona (Andrea Rau), who isn’t quite the person they would expect to encounter. After one look at the couple, the Countess muses, “Look how perfect they are,” and quickly begins to place herself and Ilona in their lives. After getting a glimpse of the corpse of a beautiful woman while sight-seeing in nearby Bruges, the young couple begin to feel the influence of the Countess genuinely affecting them.
Several sources I’ve read seem to place DAUGHTERS in the category of the lesbian vampire movie but the character of Countess Elizabeth Bathory as presented here has always felt more Omnisexual to me than anything else, taking whatever pleasure she desires from anyone she chooses. The unusual feel the movie provides is more than just dreamlike—it’s truly hypnotic in its own way that mesmerizes as you fall into its spell and makes most other vampire films feel like child’s play in comparison. In other hands the nudity and sex scenes in the scenario would make it little more than soft-core, something that a few of the lesbian vampire entries from Hammer around this time may qualify as. But DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS, as directed by Harry Kumel, feels like the perfect fusion of the European art film of that era with the horror genre and seems to pick up on the nature of the vampire in a way that other such films don’t. It has the pure feel and logic of a dream and is the rare film that succeeds in being genuinely sexy. Having Delphine Seyrig and Andrea Rau on hand certainly doesn’t hurt and certain things like playing one of the major love scenes (as well as a few others) almost entirely without music, just silence, somehow makes it more alluring and more dangerous than it would have been otherwise. Maybe it’s not a horror film that would be called traditionally ‘scary’ but that seems beside the point.
Even its plot ambiguities aren’t quite what we would expect them to be—the issue of whether they are really vampires seems definitively answered. And yet the way it does this almost seems as daring as not revealing the answer, maybe because the way the information is doled out is so fleeting that they could easily be missed. The film continually surprises through its running time in terms of where it’s going tonally. Even the two honeymooners are more complicated than we may have first thought and certainly not as innocent, making open to debate just who the true protagonist of the story is. From what I can tell response to the film through the years has been divided, with The New York Times, in a brief rave when it was first released, praising it as “fascinating” and “exquisitely directed,” while the Maltin book calls it “Elegant, but pretentious and slow,” adding that it is “Highly regarded by many”. I have no idea who those people are, but I guess I’m one of them.
The film is perfectly cast. Maybe it would be nothing without Delphine Seyrig whose presence and beauty here makes her seem as if she really does exist on another plane, apart from mere mortals. The hotel setting makes this an interesting, if very odd, companion piece to LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD and makes me wonder how a double bill of the two would play. Supporting her as Ilona is Andrea Rau, quite ravishing in her own right and a particular zoom into her very, very red lips at a key moment is just about the most purely sensual moment in a film that I’ve ever seen. John Karlen is probably best known today for playing Tyne Daly’s husband on CAGNEY & LACEY but you’d never know from watching this film that he’s a Brooklyn native—he really does seem like a person from somewhere in Europe. As his wife, Canadian actress Danielle Ouimet is alluring in her own right as the most grounded and, as it turns out, most unpredictable of this film’s odd group of characters.
It’s the sort of film that lends itself to being analyzed yet at the same time maybe it would work best if just accepted, like we accept the illogical in our own dreams. It’s not a vampire movie about fangs and shocks—although there is blood—but about the vampiric nature of how such a creature can truly possess someone’s soul. Not everyone will respond to it but I’d like to think that, like me, some will look at DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS as the sort of film they’ve been looking for. The mixture of elements alone may not make it unique, but the success of how they’re put together make it something that, for me, is spellbinding.