No Slave to Man: Delphine Seyrig and Daughters of Darkness

Delphine Seyrig as The Countess in Daughters of Darkness
Delphine Seyrig as The Countess in Daughters of Darkness

Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness (1971) — starring Lebanese-born French actress, director and feminist Delphine Seyrig — is arguably the best of several early nineteen seventies’ revisionist vampire films that either subtly suggest or outwardly depict unabashed lesbianisn. Along with films like Roy Ward Baker’s Vampire Lovers (a 1970 Hammer film with the amazing Ingrid Pitt) and José Ramón Larraz’s Vampyres (a joint Fox / Rank production from 1974), Daughters of Darkness has been dissected by critics and scholars alike that see in the vampire myth evidence of both misogyny and female empowerment. But the strength of this particular film is, without question, the magnetism of its star.

THE ACTRESS

Growing up in an intellectual environment (her father was director of Beirut’s Archaeological Institute and later became France’s cultural attaché in New York during WWII), Delphine Seyrig was an actress of some reknown in Europe. After attending the famed Actor’s Studio in 1958, she went on to work with directors like François Truffaut and Luis Buñuel in the 1960’s. In her late thirties when she appeared in Daughters of Darkness, Seyrig was ideal for the part of the Countess — a character requiring beauty, mystery, culture, and maturity. But Seyrig brought to the role one additional, essential element: her political attitudes toward’s women and what it means to be feminine. “I think when my happiness depends on a man, I am a slave and I am not not free,” Seyrig said in an interview with the Institut National de l’Audiovisuel in 1972 (my translation). Such a view was necessary to successfully embody the strong, independent character of Daughter’s Elizabeth Bathory.

THE FILM
Delphine Seyrig as Countess Elizabeth Bathory in glorious silver lamé
Delphine Seyrig as Countess Elizabeth Bathory in glorious silver lamé

An aristocrat in furs and silver lamé gowns, Seyrig’s Elizabeth Báthory (based, at least in name, on the historical late 16th century countess of whom I have written about before) is a mysterious Hungarian countess who — as we learn early in the film — has lived a long life and traveled extensively (leaving bodies in her wake!).  She arrives at a seaside resort, the hotel Ostend in Belgium, accompanied by her “secretary” Ilona (Andrea Rau). There, she immediately becomes enamoured with newlyweds who themselves have just checked into the hotel. The Countess is instantly taken with buxom blonde Valerie (Danielle Ouimet); much of the film builds to the seduction, ruin and ultimately, the empowerment, of this all too innocent bride.

Daughters of Darkness (Belgian poster)
Daughters of Darkness (Belgian poster)

“One must never be afraid to look deep down into the darkest depths of oneself. Where the light never reaches,” Bathory tells Valerie as the girl begins to free herself from her abusive husband and form a bond with the Countess. Their journey together into the darkness of vampirism is at the very heart of the movie. (SPOILER ALERT!) By film’s end, Valerie becomes a substitue for Ilona, and ultimately, an heiress to the metaphorical throne of the Countess herself. A husband is not needed. And no man, ultimately, is a threat. It is the hand of fate, and not a vampire killer, that does the Countess in.

Its story and feminist overtones aside, Daughters of Darkness is just a beautiful movie to watch. Its sets and character design are a mix of old world and new — very European, yet oddly enough old Hollywood at the same time. Kumel, interviewed for the BBC documentary Horror Europa has said that he intentionally styled Delphine Seyrig’s character after Marlene Dietrich, and Andrea Rau’s after Louise Brooks. The two are gorgeously “made up,” and a sense of yesteryear in their characters plays brilliantly to their mysterious (and deadly) intentions.

THE LEGACY
Lady Gaga as The Countess in American Horror Story: Hotel
Lady Gaga as The Countess in American Horror Story: Hotel

Both cult classic and artistic achievement, the film is one of the few of its kind to eschew exploitation in favor of atmosphere and style. It has been praised by Camille Paglia in her landmark work of scholarship Sexual Personaeand has influenced many vampires on screen since — most recently (and notably) Lady Gaga’s turn as “The Countess” in television’s American Horror Story: Hotel (2015).

In the end, it is Seyrig’s performance that pulls everything together — style and substance. Often overlooked among those films that should be considered the best of the vampire genre, Daughters of Darkness is currently streaming free for subscribers to Amazon Prime Video.

 

The Other Spanish Dracula: Enrique Rambal

Enrique Rambal as Dracula
Enrique Rambal as Dracula

Of the 200+ films and dozens of plays adapting Dracula, one relatively lost to history is Spanish actor Enrique Rambal’s 1942 stage production. A little over a decade after Universal’s successful and influential Spanish-language Drácula starring Carlos Villarías, Rambal, a well-known innovator in the area of stage production, tackled the novel for stage. Using many elements that can be traced back to the Deane / Balderston stageplay of 1924 (upon which the Universal movies are based),  Rambal’s version is particularly notable for its use of numerous screen paintings that filled the stage, as well as dramatic stage effects (not to mention the addition of an opening in Translvania at Dracula’s castle which was absent from the Deane / Balderston script but was essential to the novel). Playing the role of Dracula was Rambal himself, in rather unusually grotesque makeup that was more Nosferatu crossed with a kabuki mask than Bela Lugosi in his tie and tails.

Enrique Rambal, by Manuel Tovar, in La Novela Teatral (March 30, 1919)

Performing in Franco’s Spain must not have been easy for an artist, yet Rambal seemed to have little trouble with the government. Other than having to cut back on the cleavage shown in his actresses’ costumes, Spain’s censors had no problem with his production. He traveled freely outside of Madrid, and performed all over Spain, for his was a popular theatre — not one with pretensions of high art or subverting culture. Indeed, he is not written about much at all among literary historians. A 2012 article by Ferrer Gimeno (downloadable as a Spanish PDF) published in the now defunct Stycomithia magazine (from the University of Valencia) is the best, and perhaps only source for detailed information about the play. It is the document upon which I take most of my summary and images.

Poster for Enrique Rambal's Dracula
Poster for Enrique Rambal’s Dracula

The play’s translated title is comically specific: Dracula, a Free Adaptation of the Fantastic Novel of the Same Title, by Bram Stocker, Made in a Prologue and Two Parts, Divided into Twenty-Five Tables.  Rambal apparently had quite elaborate paintings made for each of the sections (or tables), with sensational titles on each (among them “Night of horror!”, “The Shadow That Kills”, “They come out of the graves!” and “Pleasure of eternity”!). These backdrops could act like curtains to open, rise, and separate, allowing characters to move in front of and behind them to heighten the drama.

There were 33 characters, with Rambal’s own son playing Jonatán Harker. His daughter, Enriqueta Rambal Sacía, was Lucía Westenra. Indeed, many of Rambal’s productions used his son and daughter, along with a troupe that regularly performed Rambal’s work.

Sound effects and stage tricks played a large part in establishing atmosphere. There were screaming animals, crashing coffin lids, and creepy off-stage voices. Both a pressurized water tube dotted with tiny holes, and a combustion engine that belched smoke, provided mist and swirls of smoke.

Rambal’s combustion engine used to make smoke for his production of Dracula

To add to the suspense, actors came and went through hatches and trap doors called “English traps” (interestingly enough referred to in the English theater as the “vampire door” or “grave trap”). Gas lamps served as “magic lanterns,” projecting light that made scenes all the more theatrical.

Unfortunately, all we have are a few photos of Rambal in his makeup, a picture of the combustion engine, and descriptions of the play from Gimeno’s article.

Still, Rambal’s production should be remembered, if only for its novelty. It is strangely absent from many a record of adaptions of Dracula, and even the vast expanse of the internet bears little trace of it. A decade after Universal’s seminal film, and a decade before Hammer Studios would reinvent the character, Rambal brought to Spain a unique interpretation the deserves its place in the history of adaptations of Bram Stoker’s novel. Perhaps one lone blog entry can help make that happen.

 

 

By Christopher Michael Davis