2018 Film Essays

VV Shudder Selects: Ciara Pitts on Harry Kümel’s ‘Daughters of Darkness’

Lesbians and vampires have been interweaved in fiction as early as 1872, with Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s novella Carmilla marking its inception. The motif would later enter celluloid in 1936 with Lambert Hillyer’s Dracula’s Daughter but didn’t culminate until the 70s, mainly dwelling in European cinema. Lesbian vampirism is usually assessed as exploitative and demeaning, but many of these films offer deeper ideas worth examining beyond that level. While they all display the archetypal vampiric tropes, Daughters of Darkness captures an intimate, engrossing tale that ranks above the rest. Brutality and darkness, as the title indicates, are evident, but each direction is cloaked with an energy dominated by grace. Harry Kümel’s 1971 film features all the necessary qualities (eroticism, beguiling temptation, atmospheric cinematography), but it contains intricacies that few dared to touch upon. The cult classic transcends its genre’s traditions, relying on characterization and ideas concerning the mind, instead of depending on blood and gore to drive its events.

Traveling newlyweds Valerie (Danielle Ouimet) and Stefan (John Karlen) end up in Ostend, Belgium, and decide to check in at a hotel near the sea. The establishment is gigantic and lonely, nearly evocative of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). Besides the one concierge, the couple has the resort all to themselves. This isolation gives a foreboding backdrop to the growing tension in their relationship, which manifests even more upon the arrival of Countess Elizabeth Bathory (Delphine Seyrig) and her lover Ilona (Andrea Rau). Seyrig, already an arthouse icon during this time, excels as the legendary Countess. Defining exquisiteness, her smoky, murmuring voice, bright red lips and mesmeric glare command one’s attention. Elizabeth and Ilona take an immediate and urgent interest in the couple, luring them into a living nightmare that merges love, lust and danger.

Expressive with its use of color, Daughters of Darkness accentuates reds and blues, adding a layer of ethereal beauty to the journey. The audience becomes aware that red will be a force when the film begins, as the vivid color occupies the opening credits’ background. Afterwards, the next instances of red include a railroad light, swaying against the gloomy sky, as well as Stefan’s robe — both items act like warnings of what’s to come later on. From there, red triumphs while indoors; furniture, moody lights and Elizabeth’s elegant garments are as menacing as the seductive vampire herself, aptly nicknamed the Scarlet Countess. Intense blues dominate during outdoor moments, mostly concentrating on aspects of nature: cold night skies, rainstorms, rolling ocean waves. Though red and blue contrast in tone, these colors are used to immerse viewers into the darkness that looms over the characters, both enticing and frightening them in various ways at once.

When lesbian vampire narratives first emerged, they were a means of depicting same-sex desire as something to fear, but they concurrently create an alluring glamour around that desire, making it viable and worthy of experience. Daughters of Darkness might not be as open with lesbian sexuality as other vampire films like Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983), but the message in Kümel’s feature is loud and clear: heterosexuality and lesbianism are juxtaposed in a way one would never expect to be executed in 70s horror. From the moment viewers are introduced to Valerie and Stefan, it’s clear that she’s completely enamored by him, much more than he towards her. As their time together at the resort increases, Valerie gradually learns that the man she married is a monster. Valerie wants Stefan to confirm their new courtship to his mother, but he constantly delays doing so, ignoring and deceiving her wishes each chance he gets. A relaxing day in Bruges for the couple quickly turns disturbing, when Stefan becomes a little too fascinated by the murder of a young girl. With a tense, transfixing glare, he gets a thrill out of watching her corpse being wheeled into the ambulance. Valerie notices Stefan’s uncanny obsession, but his violent nature doesn’t come to fruition until he randomly attacks his wife. Ilona and Elizabeth’s relationship contrasts the distasteful dynamic between Stefan and Valerie. The two women are a union of confidence and glamour, exhibiting genuine attraction and devotion. Even with Ilona’s jealousy towards Valerie, which Elizabeth detects just by looking into her lover’s eyes, they demonstrate an understanding towards each other’s needs. The vampiric girlfriends not only unleash darkness in the most organized fashion, but also as a united front. In Daughters of Darkness, heterosexuality consists of viciousness, oppression and distress, while lesbianism embraces comfort, compassion and liberation.

In addition to exploring new desires, vampirism becomes the catalyst of Valerie’s independence. Towards Stefan, she’s compliant and keeps her true thoughts bottled up. He attempts to manipulate Valerie’s thoughts and actions, but he’s no longer able to control her after her vampiric transformation by Elizabeth. In the film’s final minutes, catching a view of the sunlight while driving causes Elizabeth and Valerie to crash, leading to the former’s death. Jump to months later, and Valerie is off seducing a new couple. She’s clearly taken an interest in them, just as the Countess did in her former marriage, but now Valerie can act on these feelings on her own terms. This vampiric metamorphosis has rid her of conformity and abuse, letting her finally be in control of her life and voice.

Daughters of Darkness invites the audience into a cold, dreamlike experience that explores the versatility of desire. The original composition of François de Roubaix gives the film’s lingering tension a haunting but classy aura. Lesbianism never gets treated as inherently deviant — instead, it’s conveyed as a gorgeous force of strength and companionship. Not once turning into a bloodbath, the film’s lack of violence benefits the narrative, allowing it to take its time with the distinct needs and introspection of each individual, as well as their thought-provoking choices. “One must never be afraid to look deep down into the darkest deeps of oneself where the light never reaches,” Elizabeth tells Valerie as they look out into the ocean, her words echoing exactly what Kümel does with his characters.

Watch ‘Daughters of Darkness’ at Shudder.

Ciara Pitts (@CiaraNPitts) is a lesbian freelance writer with an obsession for film analysis and LGBTQ+ cinema. Her other interests include alternative music and endless rewatches of Thelma. She has previously written for AfterEllen and GO Magazine.