CAPSULE: DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS (1971)

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DIRECTED BY: Harry Kümel

FEATURING: Delphine Seyrig, John Karlen, Danielle Ouimet, Andrea Rau

PLOT: After marrying on a whim in Switzerland, Stefan and Valerie find themselves in a grand hotel where the mysterious Countess Báthory and her companion Ilona are the only other guests.

COMMENTS: It’s just as well that Olstend’s “Grand Hotel Thermes” is nearly empty during the off season—its cavernous hallways, regal stairways, and spacious suites can barely contain the thick layers of Eurotrash that pile up the moment Stefan, Valerie, the Countess, and her “secretary” come in from the rain. This gang of sex-dripping ’70s stereotypes jostle with one another for the title of Maximus Libidinosus. Is it the new bride, Valerie, often topless and presenting an innocence that belies her eagerness? Is it creep-hunk Stefan, who nearly loses it when recounting the sadistic methods of a medieval Hungarian noblewoman? Is it deer-in-headlights Ilona, when she lingers in the nude outside of Valerie’s window the first night she meets her?

No, no, and no. This is Countess Elisabeth Báthory’s party, despite the fact she doesn’t appear until the second act. Aged somewhere between twenty-five and one-hundred or more, this long-lived, ever-beautiful femme out-fatales all the wavy-haired blonde bomb-shells that came before her. With cryptic mannerisms and more-cryptic asides, Delphine Seyrig owns the screen whenever she graces it, for better or worse. The jalopy of a plot putters along with just enough horsepower to sustain its goings on, which themselves have just enough obligatory allusions to a story that it could be argued to have one. But Daughters of Darkness is allegory, and a very lesbian kind of allegory. The “V” of seduction (with the Countess at the hub) may just as well conjure the word “vaginal”… or, if one is so inclined, “vampyre.” This is a gloriously shameless exploration of sapphic love, layered thick with electronic musical cues, heightened acting, colored lighting, and, whenever the filmmakers remember it, arcane overtones.

It’s a good midnight movie, with an atmosphere you could hang a heavy jacket on. But it is a product of its time, and its budget. Amidst the array of sensuality, sex, and sadism, there is one item that stands out, and which remained, perhaps woefully, underexplored. A key plot point—and impending film spoiler—involves Stefan’s reticence in telling his mother that he has married a young woman in Switzerland. The excuse for this trepidation is that his family is very aristocratic, and his mother would be damned before recognizing such an off-the-cuff flight of matrimonial whimsy. However, we finally meet Stefan’s mother at the film’s halfway point, and find him to be not quite what we might expect. A middle-aged man, in a woman’s lounging dress, decorated in make-up, reclining on a hammock in the middle of a conservatory. He describes Stefan’s wedding gambit not so much as inappropriate as “unrealistic”. Who is this? What are he and Stefan? And how about that butler kneeling for a much-appreciated pat on the head upon delivering Mother the telephone? No matter. Within moments, we’re back to the gauzy layers of obvious questions weaving gracefully around this new and unexpected one. Class, discuss.

Blue Underground released a remastered special edition Blu-ray of Daughters of Darkness in 2022 with three separate commentary tracks and numerous special features.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Strange and beautiful, it’s a perfect cocktail of the weird, the horrible, and the oh-so-sexy. “–Cait Kennedy, But Why Tho? (2020 festival rerelease)

Where to watch Daughters of Darkness

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