The lifeblood of marriage was all but drained by the time Slovakia’s sullen vampires reached it in the early ‘70s. Not that the bloodsuckers were the only ones targeting matrimony. The Sapphic, Eurotrash vampire drama Daughters of Darkness has less in common with the likes of Vampyros Lesbos than it does with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Score, to name two great and, to be more direct, intensely homophiliac debasements of the sanctity of heterosexual newlywed-lock. Although, inversely proportional to Radley Metzger’s tour de foreplay Score, Daughters of Darkness kicks off with its hottest act of carnal pleasure, and as it turns out, it’s the requisite first post-nuptial screw shared by man and wife, Stefan and Valerie (played by John Karlen and Daniele Ouimet in full, hirstute The Joy of Sex glory).
But all is clearly not well in paradise, because their post-coital banter sees the two admitting that they don’t really love each other, perhaps half in jest, but certainly no less than half. Their lack of love makes them perfect for marriage, they conclude, and their perfectly imperfect union makes them an attractive target for the dissolute doings of the Countess Elizabeth Bathory, the only other guest of note at the Belgian hotel at which Stefan and Valerie are spending their honeymoon. The Countess Bathory (played by the iconic Delphine Seyrig) wastes little time driving a wedge between the two, in what at first appears to be her own licentious way of killing the boredom of being moneyed enough to have one’s vacations stretch long into the off-season. It’s not long before the hotel’s concierge recognizes Bathory’s face, unchanged from how it was three decades prior. And then the morning-edition headlines start ringing the alarms about serial killings in nearby Bruges, and Bathory’s Liza Minnelli look-alike traveling companion starts pulling grotesque poses outside the young couple’s bedroom window.
Director Harry Kümel’s eroticism is far too methodical to ever tip over into the hysterical prurience that marks most of the other movies Daughters of Darkness would likely be compared to in retrospect. The lesbian overtones are strong but stingy, as though female-female lip-locks were to be used as sparingly as saffron. One wonders if he held himself back owing to the participation of the infallibly elegant Seyrig, just as one can’t fail to see lesbianism as preferable to whatever the violently AC/DC playboy Stefan’s got going on the side. (The movie’s most shocking horror isn’t an act of bloodletting at all, but the long deferred reveal as to who Stefan’s mother really is and why he is afraid to introduce his blushing bride to her face.) Whatever the cost for artsploitation perverts’ future enjoyment, Kümel’s impulse to remain on the waning edge of eroticism turns what could’ve been another cheap thrill into a genuinely unsettling examination of the human race’s most happily sanctioned form of vampirism: man-woman couplings.
Daughters of Darkness is even darker than its title in Blue Underground's new Blu-ray transfer. The black levels are so strong they sometimes threaten to swallow up the rest of the screen with them. And it would be hard to pin this on the source material alone, given just how much of it is clearly day-for-night shooting. The skin tones are appropriately pallid, and the reds and mauves of Seyrig's feathery ensembles are bold if not fully saturated. The mono DTS-HD mix isn't altogether active, obviously, but it's at least preferable to the French dub.
Blue Underground pulls out the stops on this one, though much of it was already present in the previous two-disc special edition DVD. Not one but two commentary tracks grace the main feature. The first, with director Harry Kümel, is predictably self-serious and esoteric, and the second, with actor John Karlen, verges on proving Kümel's apparent reservations about heterosexual masculinity entirely justified. You've got to love an actor who all but thanks the gay community for worshipping him and, in the same minute, licks his lips over his female co-stars, wishing he could go back and kiss them all over again. Not that Kümel and co-writer/co-producer Pierre Drouot prove much better when, as they're taking a camera crew on a tour of the hotel locations where they shot Daughters of Darkness, they take pot-shots at their young starlet Danielle Ouimet's allegedly robust measurements. Both Ouimet and Andrea Rou (the porny Minnelli look-alike) get a word in, and it's a little saddening that the late Seyrig didn't end up getting the same chance. All this chauvinism gets balanced by the inclusion of an entire second feature film on the disc: 1972's The Blood Spattered Bride, a predominantly grotty but, in the end, disturbing grindhouse number that ends with a freeze frame of a man primping up a dead woman's boob, preparing to cut the mammary off entirely. Sheer 42nd Street feminism, I guess.
Her career included Jeanne Dielman, Last Year in Marienbad, Le Boucher, Muriel, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Mr. Freedom, Stolen Kisses, and India Song. And yet Delphine Seyrig's most indelible performance may be her vampy Elizabeth Bathory in Daughters of Darkness.