Daughters of Darkness / Children of the Night / The Red Lips / The Redness of the Lips / The Promise of Red Lips / Blood on the Lips / Les Levres Rouges (1971) ***
Oh, yes— they made horror movies in Belgium. Maybe not a whole lot of them, but enough to help put the Low Countries on the global horror map in the early 1970’s. Unsurprisingly, the Belgian horror films that I’ve seen owe a lot to their contemporaries across the border in France. In the case of Daughters of Darnkess, the strongest probable French influence is that of Jean Rollin’s languid, oblique, sexually charged vampire movies, although director Harry Kümel appears to have had a great deal more money at his disposal than Rollin usually did, and to have labored under a significantly lighter burden of personal obsessions.
The first people we meet are newlyweds Stefan (John Karlen, from House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows) and Valerie (Danielle Ouimet, of Satan’s Sabbath). Stefan is the somewhat Frankified scion of an English noble family called the Chiltons, and he encountered Valerie on a four-month sojourn in Switzerland. The couple are on a train bound for Flanders, with the aim of proceeding thence to Britain, and ultimately to the Chilton estate, but Stefan seems to be stalling, looking for any possible excuse to delay his homecoming. When pressed, he admits that it’s because of his mother. Evidently the old lady has firmly fixed ideas about what she wants for her son, and a marriage to Valerie would not be consistent with them. In fact, although he is loath to admit it, Stefan actually fears the outcome of the confrontation with Mom that is sure to result from his return. That being so, he is most relieved when the train is delayed by a derailment further down the line, causing them to miss the departure of their ship across the Channel, and leaving them temporarily stranded in Ostend. They select a grand old hotel for their imposed stay in town, and the concierge (Paul Esser) sets them up in the Royal Suite, the nicest accommodations in the house. Apparently the off-season in Ostend is so off that there’s little prospect of anybody else coming through with the means to afford any manner of luxury lodging.
Naturally, that means someone drops in just minutes thereafter, looking for exactly that. The glamorous blonde in the antique red coupe calls herself Countess Elizabeth Bathory (Delphine Seyrig), and wouldn’t you know it, she asks specifically for the Royal Suite. Immediately upon hearing that name, those of you with some grounding in either vampire lore or Eastern European history will be able to guess why the concierge gets so freaked out when the countess walks into the lobby. Yes, she’s stayed at this hotel before— 40 years ago, when the concierge was but a lowly teenaged bellhop, and the reason that’s so freaksome is that to all outward appearances, Countess Bathory still has several years to go before her 40th birthday. I guess that whole “bathing in the blood of virgins” thing really works, huh?
Countess Bathory has a personal secretary, a very pretty but somewhat stuffy girl named Ilona (Andrea Rau, from Lola and The Sexy Darlings). Ilona starts behaving very strangely when her employer notices and takes an interest in the couple whose presence prevents her from occupying the rooms she wanted. On the one hand, Ilona is visibly jealous of the attention the countess pays to Stefan and Valerie, and she starts threatening to pack her shit and leave. (Obviously, the relationship between the two women is more than merely professional.) But she also gets this weird look in her eyes whenever the honeymooners cross her path. Ever seen an old cartoon (I seem to remember this happening with particular frequency in the Walter Lantz shorts from the 30’s and 40’s) in which two already antagonistic characters get stranded on a desert island together, and one of them eventually starts to hallucinate that the other is a giant hotdog or an Italian cold cut sub? Well, that’s what Ilona looks like she’s seeing whenever she lays eyes on Stefan or Valerie. There’s much cryptic talk between her and her boss, too, regarding whether or not the newlyweds are suitable for some unspoken purpose, with Elizabeth contending that the almost certainly are, but that Ilona will have to wait a while yet.
Speaking of unspoken purposes, it seems that there may be more to Stefan’s reluctance to bring Valerie home to Mother than meets the eye as well. He keeps putting off their departure for another day, having the concierge pretend to phone the Chilton estate, and bribing him to tell Valerie that he can’t get through. This behavior starts to make a little more sense when Valerie finally succeeds in making Stefan call home himself, in front of her. Valerie obviously can’t pick up on on this from just Stefan’s half of the conversation, but it turns out that Stefan’s mother is sort of, well, male. And if I’m reading the subtext of their chat correctly, “Mom” (Fons Rademakers) was expecting his little boy to grow up to be a great, big poofter just like him, and now that Valerie has entered the picture, Mom’s worried that Stefan will work in an office… have children… celebrate wedding anniversaries. Also, there’s some indication that Mother had been raising Stefan to be the hugest possible pervert, hints which are substantiated later when Countess Bathory meets the couple for real, and she and Stefan work each other up to the brink of orgasm by trading details of the crimes committed by Elizabeth’s “namesake ancestor.” Despite that little performance, however, it’s really Valerie that has Elizabeth’s primary interest, and the countess aims to use Ilona to pry bride and groom apart even faster than Valerie’s developing alarm over Stefan’s ever more evident peculiarities might.
One of these days, somebody is going to make a movie about a heterosexual female vampire. Until then, we can at least commend the makers of Daughters of Darkness for relying not upon J. Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla for their inspiration, but on the less egregiously overexposed legend of Erzsebet Bathory. Daughters of Darkness wasn’t the first Bathory movie (Hammer had released Countess Dracula the year before), but it may have been the first to suggest that Hungary’s most notorious medieval noblewoman was literally a vampire. (Countess Dracula, despite the suggestive title, contented itself with supposing that Countess Bathory really had discovered a Fountain of Youth in the blood of teenaged girls.) Nevertheless, it is a Carmilla movie that this one most closely resembles, for in tone and approach (and even to some extent in premise and plot), it seems almost inescapable that Daughters of Darkness was as important an influence on Vicente Aranda’s The Blood-Spattered Bride as Jean Rollin’s earlier sexed-up vampire pictures were upon Kümel. Like the slightly better-known Spanish film, Daughters of Darkness is an odd mix of the arty and the sleazy, the lurid and the understated. Most notably, it isn’t until the penultimate scene that the movie finally, unambiguously reveals that Elizabeth Bathory is a vampire in the full sense of the term. Until that point, we have only hints that are sufficiently inconclusive to leave open the possibility of her being a statistically atypical but still perfectly mortal serial killer. (Remember that The Blood-Spattered Bride cultivated much the same sort of ambiguity, and that it, too, hinged upon a vampiric lesbian attempting to insinuate herself between a weak-spirited woman and her newly acquired husband.) The concierge remembers Elizabeth from his boyhood, but the woman who stayed at the hotel 40 years ago could really have been her mother, as everyone he mentions the situation to immediately points out. It seems clear enough that Elizabeth and Ilona are behind the strange exsanguination murders that have been committed in every stop on their current tour of Western Europe, but there’s certainly no rule against psychos drinking the blood of their victims. And Ilona definitely seems mortal enough when she accidentally gets slit open with the razor she was hoping to turn on Stefan, even if she displays a marked aversion to running water earlier in the same scene. Daughters of Darkness even goes so far as to adopt the classic art-movie technique for distancing itself from embarrassingly “lowbrow” subject matter, steering well clear of the word “vampire” in the dialogue.
That coyness goes some way toward preventing Daughters of Darkness from becoming as gothy as it might have been with a more conventional handling. After all, it’s difficult to over-romanticize a condition you refuse to admit exists until a point in the story when “Fin” can be plainly seen on the horizon. It’s also worth mentioning that although these vampires do mope incorrigibly despite being impossibly rich, impossibly beautiful, and impossibly glamorous (to say nothing of undying and unaging), they refrain from doing or being any of those things in normatively vampiric ways. There’s scarcely a square inch of black lace or purple velvet to be seen anywhere, and only one token appearance of a black opera cape— which, in any case, is there to serve a symbolic function. And of the greatest importance, Daughters of Darkness remembers to present its vampires as recognizably evil, glamorous though they may be. Beyond the trail of dead, bloodless bodies stretching across half of Europe in her wake (which might be overlooked by the pro-vampire camp), there’s the remarkably cavalier way in which Elizabeth uses and then betrays Ilona. She makes a pawn of Stefan, too, while she’s at it, but most viewers will have written him off as a rancid bastard by that point (cruel perversity does indeed seem to run in his family, even if homo- and transexuality do not), so that has less impact than the revelation of Elizabeth’s monumental disloyalty to the girl who has loved her for what may be a matter of centuries. Her bloodsucking runs to the metaphorical as well as the literal. Nevertheless, the countess remains sufficiently beguiling that one can see the trap she lays for Valerie succeeding— even if only with Valerie, who, lest we forget, was foolish enough to marry Stefan after only a few weeks in his company. I wouldn’t go as far as the overheated blurbs on the cover of the old VEC videotape (“One of the most elegant horror pictures ever made,” my ass!), but Daughters of Darkness undoubtedly is worthy of more measured praise.
This review is part of a much-belated B-Masters Cabal tribute to all the living dead things that we’ve been negelecting in favor of zombies all these years. Click the link below to read all that the Cabal finally came up with to say on the subject.