Starring Delphine Seyrig, Danielle Ouimet, John Karlen, Andrea Rau
Directed by Harry Kümel
Distributed by Blue Underground
Vampire films are often so mired in lore and/or bloodletting that it can feel awfully refreshing when one goes for a different vein. Director Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness (1971) deals with an infamously gory figure – Elizabeth Bathory, regally played by Delphine Seyrig – yet the main, ahem, thrust of this picture is softcore eroticism and European aesthetic porn. Little is explicitly shown, with the story instead focusing on the strange and immediate bonds that develop when Bathory and her “secretary”, Ilona (gorgeous Goth ghoul Andrea Rau), meet Stefan (John Karlen) and his new wife, Valerie (Danielle Ouimet), at a secluded seaside resort at which these four are the only guests. Kümel sets a tone for the film that is heavily steeped in sexual tension and violence, with the two often overlapping in strange and uncomfortable ways.
Stefan and Valerie are a newlywed couple heading to the Ostend seafront in Belgium for their honeymoon. Though both appear elated on the surface, Stefan is secretly sweating at the thought of informing the family matriarch, his apparently overbearing mother, of the nuptials. The couple arrives and learns they are the only guests at the resort, for now – it isn’t long after that the Countess Elizabeth Bathory and her “secretary” Ilona check in and find this unexpected couple is occupying the suite in which they had planned to stay. With the hotel barren and the lobby an attractive space for lounging, the two couples eventually meet and strike up a quick friendship with discussion turning to the four dead women found in town throughout the past week. Stefan takes a peculiar interest in the cases, something Elizabeth finds unreasonably attractive. The tension between the foursome eventually boils over into a frantic night full of mischief, murder, sadism, and seduction.
This is a weird film, not because of its subject matter but in how it handles its characters and situations. For one thing, Stefan is a massive piece of shit. He and Valerie have been married for all of a day or two and already he’s laying into her and smacking her around – and the worst part is Valerie doesn’t bat an eyelash over it, instead trying to placate and please her man however possible. For example, when the two are taking a scenic stroll around Bruges and come across another murder scene Stefan becomes completely transfixed on the white-sheeted corpse being rolled outside into an ambulance to the point that when Valerie attempts to get his attention he smacks her in the mouth, in broad daylight, in front of the gathered crowd. Valerie’s response? Not a thing. Later, Stefan mercilessly beats her in their hotel room and although Valerie plans to leave a quick coaxing from Elizabeth, who has eyes for the both of them, gets her right back in his stead. To say this is a marriage doomed from the start would be an understatement.
I wanted a further exploration of the relationship between Elizabeth and Ilona, whose exact purpose with the Countess is left nebulous. Is she a lover? A procurer of potential victims? A familiar? A vampire? So many questions, so few answers. I can appreciate ambiguity within a story, and I also think explanations are often unnecessary when a film drops enough clues for an audience to form their own opinions, but Kümel leaves this rather vague.
There’s also an odd shot I want to point out, when the Countess is checking her face in a compact mirror and a snooping detective peers over her shoulder… only her hand is shown in the reflection, not her face. So it looks like a disembodied hand is moving around. I guess in Kümel’s vampire universe only faces don’t cast a reflection? Odd.
Any enjoyment from watching this film comes down to how much a viewer is concerned with mood over story. Kümel has crafted an undeniably classic and classy atmosphere, dripping with Gothic overtones and lush in a way that springs to mind the ‘60s works of Hammer. It is a sumptuous visual feast and Kümel also proves adept at staging his shots and dazzling his viewers with eye candy. What he can’t shoot is action, though, as the few action-y scenes there are look haphazard and roughly edited. Still, there is some undeniably appealing quality to his work and I find myself drawn to this picture despite being very aware of its evident flaws.
Oh, and if there are any Rob Zombie fans in the audience keep an ear out for a few lines that have peppered his songs over the years.
Blue Underground last issued this film on Blu-ray in 2011 and although I never upgraded my DVD to that release I’m confident in saying this new 4K 2160p image soundly blows it out of the water. Bill Lustig has been delivering the Ultra HD goods to horror fans in spades this year and Daughters is yet another stunning set worth every penny. The image is aces across the board – print cleanliness, fine detail, definition, color reproduction, shadow detail, film grain. I’d have to scour frame-by-frame just to find anomalies and you know what? That’s no fun. In motion this is a beautiful transfer and the added resolution afforded by 4K, and the lush palette provided by Dolby Vision, makes this another stunner in Blue Underground’s 4K catalog.
Likewise, as with other 4K releases from the label an English Dolby Atmos track upgrades the previous DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround sound mix. A mono track is available in English and French, too. The Atmos track allows for a fuller soundfield, filling in ambient cues from the extra height channels and giving composer Francois de Roubaix’s sultry score room to soar. The soundtrack has a distinctly giallo flavor while adding in elements of jazz and a baroque flair – and in a most-welcomed move for score aficionados Blue Underground has included a copy of the score on CD within this package, something noticeably missing from their previous 4K releases. Very cool. Subtitles are available in English SDH, French, Spanish, and English for French audio.
- BRAND NEW 4K 16-BIT RESTORATION FROM THE 35MM CAMERA NEGATIVE SUPERVISED AND APPROVED BY DIRECTOR HARRY KUMEL
- DOLBY VISION/HDR PRESENTATION OF THE RESTORATION
- ENGLISH DOLBY ATMOS TRACK, plus French DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track
- NEW Audio Commentary #3 with Kat Ellinger, Author of Devil’s Advocates: Daughters of Darkness
- NEW Alternate U.S. Main Titles
- NEW Poster & Still Gallery
- NEW Theatrical Trailers
- Audio Commentary #1 with Co-Writer/Director Harry Kümel
- Audio Commentary #2 with Star John Karlen and Journalist David Del Valle
- Locations of Darkness – Interviews with Co-Writer/Director Harry Kümel and Co-Writer/Co-Producer Pierre Drouot
- Playing the Victim – Interview with Star Danielle Ouimet
- Daughter of Darkness – Interview with Star Andrea Rau
- Radio Spots
- Optional Subtitles: English SDH, Français, Español, English for French Audio
- CD DISC: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack by François de Roubaix
- Collectible Booklet with new essay by Michael Gingold
- Limited Edition Lenticular Slipcover on First Pressing Only
I’m happy to sound like a broken record here – Blue Underground once again knocks a 4K release out of the park. The a/v quality is undeniably stellar and with the film’s soundtrack included on CD this is the ultimate edition for collectors. As usual, highly recommended.