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.
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.
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.
“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.
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 Personae, and 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 well worth seeking out.