The enduring romanticism of Bram Stoker’s Dracula comes down to sex. Long gone was the idea of vampires as monsters, a predatory undead haunting small villages — in Dracula, the monster was suave, rich and powerful. He held a commanding presence over all those who met him, and such a thrall was built on desire. Dracula’s spell was sexual, and contemporary adaptations play on this heavily. He was the foreigner, the other, and he threatened to take away men’s women. It was an issue of territory, but above all else, it was an issue of inadequacy. Men like Jonathan Harker were afraid that they would be overtaken and rendered obsolete.
In Dracula, there is also a hint of something deeper, more threatening to the Victorian values of its era — the prospect of lesbianism. The novel is (among other things) about the dangers of women’s fragile, sexual whims: a sexually liberated woman meant the dissolution of traditional family structures, and then society itself. The allure and otherness of lesbianism is a consistent trope in the history of cinema, one of the most notable early examples of lesbianism in Hollywood cinema is the not-so-subtle subtext of Lambert Hillyer’s 1936 film Dracula’s Daughter. Vampirism was an easy way to work around the production code, using humanoid monsters to represent those who didn’t fit into normal conventions.
When the production code lifted, you have a massive influx of films in the UK and USA that exploited the titillating appeal of lesbianism within the vampire genre through films like The Vampire Lovers, The Blood Spattered Bride and Vampyros Lesbos. However, the most compelling and esoteric lesbian vampire romance of the era is without a doubt Daughters of Darkness, a Belgian and French co-production starring Delphine Seyrig and Danielle Ouimet.
Unlike many other films of the era that were clearly appealing to pure exploitative desire, there is a sleek coldness to Daughters of Darkness. Seyrig, who was already larger than life, gives a performance that transcends her era. Her role as the Countess Bathory (evoking the real-life counterpart) ranks as among the best vamp performances of all time, and the likes of Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger and Tilda Swinton in Only Lovers Left Alive are clearly indebted to this. As one of the premiere actors of all time, Seyrig brings steely grace to a surface role that conceals hidden brutality.
The film plays on similar ideas as Paul Morrissey’s Blood for Dracula because the countess is faced with a virgin problem — she has been able to live so long by bathing in the blood of virgins, but they are becoming increasingly difficult to come across. Rather than using brute force, the film lets the Countess manipulate the situation in order to get her prey. She preys on a young newlywed couple by appealing to their baser needs, as she invokes orgies and the devil’s temptation in the young man, who then turns against his wife — thrusting her into the Countess’ arms.
Daughters of Darkness has a deliberate energy, one that both engages with the perception of homosexuality as an evil force, but also one that offers it as an alternative. This is the beginning of a movement within feminism that advocated lesbianism and female companionship, and the concept is reflected within this film. The men are dull and brutal, the women sleek and appealing. Daughters of Darkness presents heterosexuality as a burdensome trap of unhappiness and oppression, just as much of the film’s tension comes from the trials of unhealthy relationships and forced societal expectations.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she is the former film editor of Sound on Sight and a freelance writer.