Daughters Of Darkness

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While on their honeymoon, newly weds Stefan (John Karlen) and Valerie Chilton (Danielle Ouimet) stop to spend the night at a hotel just outside of Bruges. There they meet Countess Elizabeth Báthory (Delphine Seyrig) and her companion Ilona (Andrea Rau). Reports of mysterious murders flood the newspapers that the hotel guests peruse over supper as the Countess begins to drive the couple apart.

Daughters Of Darkness (1971) was a surprise hit in Europe for director Harry Kümel when it was first released. Since then the film has gone on to become an international cult classic. An aesthetic bridge between The Vampire Lovers (1970) and The Hunger (1982), Daughters Of Darkness is indicative of a paranoid and hostile reaction to the feminist movement. As feminism began to rewrite the social fabric of society there was an increase of films made about the legend of Countess Elizabeth Báthory. In this context the historical figure of Countess Elizabeth Báthory represented all of those aspects of feminism that men found so threatening. To these filmmakers working in the exploitation film market Countess Elizabeth Báthory meant lesbianism as well as a physical threat to the status quo.

In Daughters Of Darkness Countess Elizabeth Báthory is seen as an eternal figure who breaks up marriages in order to enlist a new female companion with whom she will prey on women for their blood. Báthory is an inverted and queer version of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. In the narrative complex of Kümel’s film she also functions as the mysterious evil double of the would-be protagonist Stefan Chilton. Stefan’s sadistic kinks and morbid fascination with Báthory’s victims is depicted as being motivated by his “mother” (a queer character whose gender is ambiguous). Misogynist outbursts on Stefan’s part are little more than assertions of his own rather traditional masculinity.

Báthory, of course, represents the epitome of queer culture as Kümel imagines it. Her queer relationships with Ilona and later Valerie are suggested to be just the most recent in a long line of women lovers. The social sphere of the Countess is entirely feminine and anti-masculine as she usurps Stefan as the dominant sexual force in Valerie’s life. For both Báthory and Stefan their partners are interchangeable commodities. Lovers are swapped and discarded without care by both vampire and human male. This circumstance is derived from the assumption that queer relationships between women still conform to the traditional misogynist social structures of the day (circa 1971).

Ilona, the most overtly objectified character in this equation, looks intentionally like Louise Brooks. Brooks as a signifier had already been distilled into an image of feminine bisexuality via the Valentina comics by Guido Crepax. Kümel exploits this, using the look of Ilona to suggest not just the time period that Báthory first encountered her but also to suggest her sexual appeal to both the Countess and Stefan. The use of double meanings goes even further in the case of the dialogue. In a scene where Stefan and the Countess relate the latter’s torture methods of the sixteenth century they use descriptors that are highly suggestive of the phallus. This links Stefan and Báthory again as pseudo masculine, dominant forces in the lives of Ilona and Valerie.

Harry Kümel treats all of this as austere as possible. He frames the action within nineteenth century spaces while employing the harsh lighting and vibrant color schemes of Hammer Horror pictures, thus evoking a distinctly cinematic form of Gothic. In this way Daughters Of Darkness can be seen as a more classicist, narrative driven version of the same concept behind the dreamy and surreal Vampyros Lesbos (1971). The impetus behind these two contemporary erotic horror films is to exploit the terror of a space wherein the female possesses all of the perceived power of the phallus.