Overlooked & Underseen: Daughters of Darkness (1971)
Last week I had the urge to watch some John Karlen. Who the hell is John Karlen, you ask? Well, he’s an actor who has been around for years. You might know him from Dark Shadows as the most excellent ‘Willie Loomis”, sort of Banabas Collin’s “Renfeld” if you will. Or perhaps you know him from the other staggering amount of television work he did in the 1960s and 70s. Anyway, he’s one of my favorite actors because of Dark Shadows and when I checked Amazon for any of his movies that might be streaming, there it was… Daughters of Darkness. Eric had shown me this movie several years ago and I remembered loving it so I thought I’d give it a rewatch and, holy shit, I’m glad I did because this movie is a stunner. It’s so staggeringly beautiful that it needs to be shared with the world.
Stefan (John Karlen) and Valerie (Danielle Ouimet) have just been married in Switzerland. They’re trying to get to England to visit Stefan’s mum so or Valerie thinks anyway. Stefan is hesitant to bring his new bride to his home so he’s trying to find any excuse to prolong the trip getting there. They get to Ostend, Belgium to catch the boat but they miss it, much to Stefan’s relief. They check into this massive, very grand hotel on the seaside for the night. It’s the middle of winter so the hotel is deserted. They are the only guests until, that is, a Hungarian countess, Elizabeth Báthory (the ethereal Delphine Seyrig) arrives along with her "secretary" Ilona (Andrea Rau). From the moment Báthory spots the newlyweds she is enthralled. She wants to meet them right away but is told they are leaving in the morning. The concierge, Pierre, (seemingly the only person working during the off season) is a bit freaked out because he swears Báthory came to visit the hotel 40 years ago when he was a bellboy and she looked exactly the same. When Stefan tells Pierre they’ve decided to stay longer, he tries to get them to leave in order to avoid the Countess.
The Countess finally arranges to have drinks with the couple and Stefan is immediately attracted to her. Valerie is, of course, really upset by this. Really, the Countess wants them both but Valerie can’t see it through her jealousy. Illona is upset, too. She tells the Countess she wants to leave her. She can’t take it anymore. The Countess tells her to hang on just a little bit longer.
Meanwhile, in Bruges, there have been a string of violent murders of teenage girls. They’ve all been killed in the same manner and their bodies are void of blood. During a sightseeing trip, the newlyweds happen upon the scene of yet another murdered girl. When the body is brought out, Stefan goes into some sort of orgasmic trance. Valerie has no idea what the hell is wrong with her husband. She is more than a little freaked out.
Both Valerie and Illona are jealous of the Countess and the hold she seems to have on Stefan. There is another encounter with the newlyweds where Stefan is pretty much brought to ecstasy by the mere touch of the Countess as she tells a story. Valerie leaves in a huff and Illona tries to put the move on her but, instead, just merely scares the crap out of her. Stefan becomes cold to Valerie and even tells her he’s going to England alone. Valerie is scared out of her mind and does not want to be left alone with the Countess and Illona. Everything eventually comes to a head between the four. You’ve got your sex, sadism, and vampirism and, well, really, there can only be one winner here. Who it is, you’ll just have to watch.
This movie by Belgian director Harry Kümel is an all-timer. It’s so fucking gorgeous. I know it’s a cliché but this thing is a visual feast. First off, Delphine Seyrig is a goddess and should be treated as such. Her Elizabeth Báthory is the epitome of delicious coolness. I mean, you want to volunteer your blood to her. Andrea Rau is another stunner, and really, so is Danielle Ouimet. John Karlen, for his part, isn’t a slouch. He’s not conventionally handsome but, boy, I’d give him a turn or three. All four do a wonderful job acting, too. They aren’t all pretty faces.
The production design here is also just stunning. Both the interiors and exteriors are amazing. The costumes are their own character. Seyrig’s wardrobe is out of this world. She inhabits these gowns and they become part of her. Ouimet’s clothes are the coolest of the cool. I’d want to wear every single outfit. Honestly, I want to wear every piece of wardrobe these characters wear, even Karlen’s.
There are several scholarly pieces floating around out there on Daughters of Darkness so it would be worth your time seeking them out. The wonderful Mark Gatiss interviewed the director for a documentary called Horror Europa where they discuss several specific choices he made when it came to The Countess and Illona. I use this column to highlight films I think you should see. I’m getting to get the word out on films folks might have missed or they’ve never heard of so I don’t generally get into analyzing the movie I’m discussing. I’ll leave that to the more learned film critics among us. My job is to present the film to you, where you go from there is your choice.
Daughters of Darkness is streaming right now on Amazon Prime. It’s also available on Blu-ray via Blue Underground.