Cast: Delphine Seyrig, Danielle Ouimet, John Karlen, Andrea Rau
Extras: Commentaries, Featurettes, Trailer, Radio Spots, Poster and Still Gallery, "The Blood Splattered Bride" film
With a couple of DVD editions already floating around (one courtesy of Anchor Bay), Blue Underground goes to the well again, providing a triple-dip presentation of Harry Kumel's artsy Euro-trash classic "Daughters of Darkness." Drenched in a sumptuous color scheme and featuring a provocative storyline, "Daughters of Darkness" is a classier take on the lesbian vampire sub-genre that was cultivated in the 60's and 70's. With this newest incarnation, Blue Underground has unleashed the definitive version of this hypnotic film.
Diverted during their honeymoon vacation, newlyweds Stefan (John Karlen) and Valerie (Canadian soft-core starlet Danielle Ouimet) find themselves stranded at a deserted Flemish seaside hotel. Gliding through the lobby one night is the sultry and elegant Countess Elizabeth Bathory (the enthralling Delphine Seyrig) and her slave/companion Ilona (pouty sex bomb Andrea Rau). Could this Hungarian Countess be the same Elizabeth Bathory who, centuries earlier, slaughtered hundreds of virgins in order to bathe in their blood? The hotel manager (Paul Esser) certainly finds her appearance dubious, since he vividly remembers seeing the Countess forty years prior when he was a young bellboy…and she hasn't aged a day. Complicating matters is a cartoonish retired policeman (Georges Jamin) who takes an active interest in the Countess, especially since young women are turning up dead in the city, drained of blood. Before you know it, the increasingly sadistic Stefan and overly complacent Valerie find themselves lured into the Countess's decadent lifestyle, wrapped up in a burgeoning world of torrid sex and shocking violence. Roaming the oppressive halls of the barren hotel in a dream-like haze, everyone sinks further into the abyss of hidden motivations and damning secrets.
A spellbinding film that has the ethereal beauty of a fever dream, "Daughters of Darkness" weaves a mysterious tale with lavish images. Director Kumel takes his time unraveling the story, pulling apart the threads at a delicate pace. This creates an aura of anticipation that soon spirals into a maelstrom of perversions. On the surface, "Daughters of Darkness" harbors a relatively simplistic plot, but when burrowing underneath the surface, a wealth of complex themes is revealed. Repression of emotions and the expectations of gender roles are just a couple of ideas that Kumel works with and the game cast revels in the coldness of their characters and their haunting surroundings.
"Daughters of Darkness" subtly references vampire lore (through extensive use of red-colored props and filters), instead of relying on fancy make-up effects or overused clichés and conventions. For some, this might be a deterrent, but I found this left-of-center viewpoint boldly refreshing. Certainly not for everyone, the languid pacing can either draw you in or cast you out and the numerous art-house pretensions cause the film to teeter on the cusp of campiness. With loads of overt symbolism on display (there's enough phallic and virginal imagery to fill a week's worth of soft-core porn films), Kumel's persistent vision is nonetheless captivating. As long as you're willing to succumb to Kumel's atmospheric direction, then "Daughters of Darkness" will reward you with loads of compelling imagery. Also, for those who hope that the film's lurid reputation will result in a high sleaze quotient, the simple fact (for better or worse) is that the proceedings are fairly tame by today's standards. Glimpses of full-frontal nudity pop up here and there, but overall, the film is more concerned with being erotically tasteful than shockingly exploitive.
Aside from the stimulating visuals, the main drawing point of the film is Delphine Seyrig's delicious performance as the Countess. She literally sinks her teeth into the role, commanding the screen with an authority that perfectly highlights her manipulative ways. It's easy to see how the characters surrender to her wiles, forgoing rational thought and relinquishing personal independence under her hypnotic spell. Without Seyrig's participation (she was actually the only reason why the director got involved with the production), "Daughters of Darkness" would be a lesser effort. She simply makes the film; adding significant amounts of class and star power.
Blue Underground presents "Daughters of Darkness" in an anamorphic widescreen 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Without a doubt, this edition is superlative, trouncing all former releases of the film. Clean and sharp, this newly remastered High Definition transfer bursts with clarity. The bold colors are eye-poppingly realized, with rich reds and striking blues drenching the screen. Blemishes and grain are non-existent, with the only problem areas occurring during certain night-time scenes. Sometimes the images appear too dark, but this has more to do with the cinematography (especially the use of blue-filters), then with the transfer itself. With that said, this is quite simply the best this film has ever looked. A fantastic job.
While not on par with the gorgeous transfer, the Dolby Digital Mono soundtrack is nonetheless suitable. Since we're dealing with an older art-house import, the range isn't exactly going to overpower anyone's system. Despite the limitations, the atmospheric score is ably represented and comes across nicely with no indications of hiss or distortion. Vocals appear natural (even John Karlen's mysterious Euro-accent) and clear. Unfortunately, there are no subtitles or alternate language options.
Carried over from the previous editions are two Audio Commentaries. The first features Co-Writer/ Director Harry Kumel, joined by moderator David Gregory. Kumel details how the film came about and how he was able to secure financing from various countries (which explains the international cast). Showcasing his film historian past, Kumel alternately pays tribute to different directors and disregards others (at one point stating he doesn't like Martin Scorsese as a filmmaker). He touches on an assortment of influences, from producer Val Lewton's films to Alfred Hitchcock's formalistic style. Also, Kumel provides many kind words about the late, great Delphine Seyrig; stating that the film is nothing without her. Strangely, the director also complains extensively about the film being trashy, yet he alternately chides it for not being trashy enough. When all is said and done, Kumel believes that filmmaker's shouldn't take themselves too seriously and he views "Daughters of Darkness" as a funny film. I found his candor extremely engaging, even when he was putting down other directors and horror films. His vast knowledge of cinema is apparent and it becomes clear that he truly loves the format. It also helps that he divulges some of the more obscure symbolism in the film (who knew that the selection of red, black and whites worn by the actors was supposed to represent the colors of Nazi swastikas?).
The next Commentary track involves actor John Karlen and journalist David Del Valle. Right off the bat, Karlen gets the ball rolling with jokes aplenty. Funny and self-deprecating, the actor clearly seems to be having a good time viewing the film. He talks about the misconception that people have of him, since many people who have seen the film think he is European (he's from the Bronx). No studio looping was involved (all dialogue was recorded on-set), so what we hear is his actual voice. Karlen also provides an interesting anecdote about how Seyrig wanted to get paid for the film in cash, as well as his encounters over the years with gay magazines who have published nude photos of him from the film. As expected, this track isn't as technical or probing as the Kumel commentary, but it is more fun.
A couple of new Featurettes find their way onto the disc. "Locations of Darkness: Interviews with Co-Writer/ Director Harry Kumel and Co-Writer/ Co-Producer Pierre Drouot" (20 mins.) has the two enthusiastic men revisiting the internal and external locations of the prominently featured hotel. They reflect on various arguments they had regarding stylistic choices and point out how they seamlessly integrated both locations together, creating the illusion that they were occupying the same space. Interspersed with their tour of the Astoria hotel in Brussels are numerous shots from the film. It's interesting to see how this location has changed over the years (even surprising Kumel, who is shocked to find that a whole room has disappeared). Towards the end, Drouot leaves and Kumel walks through the hotel by himself, explaining how the film's cinematographer didn't like shooting scenes where mirrors or reflections existed. So, at the top of the grand lobby stairs, they had to cover the mirror with a black sheet. Next, Kumel journeys to the Hotel Des Thermes in Ostunde, where the exterior shots were used. To make the illusion between the two locations more convincing, the filmmaker painted a backdrop to look like the interior of the Astoria and propped it behind the revolving doors of the Hotel Des Thermes. All in all, it's fascinating seeing the two men talk about the film (it's clear that they have great affection for it) and the before-and-after aspects of the locations.
Another new Featurette is "Playing the Victim: Interview with Star Danielle Ouimet" (15 mins.). This is a modern day talking head interview with the actress, which is intercut with scenes from the film. She talks about her soft-core origins and her excitement when landing the role of Valerie in "Daughters of Darkness," especially after hearing that a star of Delphine Seyrig's stature was going to be involved. Ouimet also details the indecisiveness of director Kumel and how the sex scenes were particularly uncomfortable between her and actor John Karlen (both were shy and Kumel was clueless, handing the actors a Swedish sex book and telling them to do whatever they wanted to). The struggles of shooting at night and in the hotel are also detailed, since the interiors had to be blocked of all light, which started to get on the nerves of the crew. Dealing with a vampire film, nobody saw any daylight. Ouimet spends some time reminiscing about how great a person Seyrig was and how the veteran stood up for the young actress when Kumel was being stubborn. Every time Ouimet goes to Paris, she visits Seyrig's grave and realizes how much of a better person she is now, due to Seyrig's influence. Ouimet concludes the interview by stating that "Daughters of Darkness" is the best film she has ever done and that she likes the "texture" of it.
From the previous release is the last Featurette, "Daughter of Darkness: Interview with Star Andrea Rau" (8 mins.). Another relatively current talking head interview, Rau details her rise from Playboy model to film actress. Like the other Featurettes, this derives much of its interest by seeing how these actresses look today. For the record, she and Ouimet have aged extremely well. Anyway, Rau doesn't really cover anything new that hasn't been detailed by the other Extras, but it's always nice to see cast members participate in such an obscure release. Also, Rau speaks in her native tongue, so this feature is subtitled in English.
Rounding out the Extras is the Theatrical Trailer, four Radio Spots (each 30 seconds long and featuring an echo-heavy narration that makes the film sound scarier than it really is), and the requisite Poster and Still Gallery.
On Disc 2 we get a full-length film as an Extra. "The Blood Spattered Bride" makes a nice companion piece to the main feature. It's the exact same transfer as the now out of print Anchor Bay release, so those hoping for something new in the way of features, picture quality or sound will just have to wait. "The Blood Spattered Bride" is more straightforward in its execution, although it contains some interesting stylistic flourishes (check out the unique strobe-like effect during one of the many dream sequences, if you're not prone to epileptic seizures). Covering similar ground "Daughters of Darkness" covers (with two newlyweds stranded in an atmospheric setting, as well as a horny, sadistic husband who exhibits a fondness for abusing his wife), "The Blood Spattered Bride" revels in shock tactics (the director, Vicente Aranda, enjoys composing scenes of hands reaching out of the darkness to grab unsuspecting characters). For those disappointed by the relatively tame, soft-core antics of "Daughters of Darkness," "The Blood Spattered Bride" delivers a substantial amount of sex and violence in typical exploitation fashion. Grab some popcorn and enjoy the high-minded and low-minded pleasures of this double feature.
Also included on this disc is a joint Trailer for "The Blood Spattered Bride" and "I Dismember Mama." One thing I learned from watching this is that they don't make trailers like they used to. It's funny, insane and poorly (yet enthusiastically) acted.
While some might find director Harry Kumel's tale of lesbian vampires slow moving and pretentious, I got sucked into his provocative vision. Classy and erotic, "Daughters of Darkness" creates a dream-like atmosphere that is compellingly realized. Featuring a wonderful cast headlined by the commanding presence of Delphine Seyrig, the film manages to dig deep into the psychosexual freakouts of its participants. Presenting a unique perspective on the vampire mythos, the luscious and evocative imagery has never looked better, courtesy of a gorgeous Hi-Def transfer. With a couple of entertaining new Extras added, Blue Underground's 2-Disc set for "Daughters of Darkness" comes highly recommended.