By JUSTIN MCDEVITT
In the mid to late 20th century, visibility at all costs was the rallying cry of queer people. Yes, the homos had to die at the end. Yes, the lesbian canoodles were censored. Yes, they were often evil villains. But nothing compared to seeing someone on the big screen who resembled – even just a little bit – the person watching. Today we have options, which this cynic would claim is not necessarily a good thing. Make room for Glee. Make room for Looking. Make room for Ryan Murphy resurrecting every major gay play he could get his hands on (yet, shockingly, not The Inheritance, why is that?). Our people got main storylines, on-camera affection, and a conclusion that did not involve death. While the progress of film and television over the last twenty years is undeniable, that does not mean we should discredit the breadcrumbing Hollywood gave us during and following the Hays Code. It just makes it different. I apologize if that was too serious. Cock.
This week I’m dishing on 1971’s English language Belgian production DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS. Save this atmospheric thriller for late at night with some red candles lit and Bota Box Merlot filled to the brim of the coffee mug from which you drink. This is a nighttime movie. Do not be watching this at 3 in the afternoon with grandma. She would much prefer to watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, America’s ultimate defense of the nuclear family. Anyway, DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS stars Delphine Seyrig, Danielle Ouimet, and John Karlen. Written by Pierre Drouot, Jean Ferry, Harry Kumel, and Joseph Amiel with direction by Harry Kumel. This film runs 100 minutes, and while some moments tend to be a bit slow, once you’re caught up in the edging of it all, you won’t really mind.
Valerie (Ouimet) and Stefan (Karlen) are horny newlyweds on a train. While some opening sex scenes leave me firmly rooted in the horror genre, this one made me wonder if I had stumbled into an… art film. Already we have conflict: Valerie believes Stefan is ashamed of her because he doesn’t want to introduce her to his mother (but more on that later). Stefan looks strikingly similar to Stephen Sondheim during the all-night recording session for the Company cast album. Unfortunately, Stefan is a bit of a shithead. He represents all that is wrong with cis heterosexual males, which is less of a comment on their innate being and more a reaction to the universal power, privilege, and dominance they wield over everyone, particularly our kind womenfolk. “You see the fact is she already hates you without even knowing you exist,” Stefan tells Valerie of his mother. He is a top-notch fellow, indeed. He delays their visit to his mother’s with an extended honeymoon at a seaside town called Ostend.
At the vacant hotel, our newlyweds run into dangerous beauty Countess Elizabeth Bathory (Seyrig). She is the successor to Countess Zaleska in Dracula’s Daughter and the predecessor to Catherine Deneuve’s Miriam in The Hunger and Gaga’s Countess in American Horror Story. She looks like a cross between Marlene Dietrich and ’70s Maggie Smith. She is marvelous, sexy, seductive, and I am fully ready for all the naughtiness she wishes to impose on our young couple. The Concierge can’t believe his eyes: he’s seen the Countess before, forty years ago in fact, and she looks exactly the same. But wait! With admissions from the Countess like, “The light hurts my eyes,” we know exactly what kind of movie we’re about to watch: the lesbian porn version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, that’s what! Is this too many allusions to other films? Yes.
Countess Elizabeth is trailed by her sexy but reserved henchlady Ilona (Andrea Rou). A cross between Nell from Rocky Horror and Reinfeld from Dracula lure, Ilona is thirsty for blood but also possessive of her mistress. She does not want to play these reindeer games with straight people. Meanwhile, Valerie and Stefan learn a string of young women have been killed along the coast of Belgium. They all suffered neck wounds, the blood completely drained from their bodies. Our newlyweds watch as a corpse is brought out on a gurney with a red blanket draped over it. The color red figures prominently in this film. It is laid on thicker than the clues to vampirism. There are red blankets, red robes, red nail polish, red dresses, red lipstick, and fade(s) to red(s). We get it. In an interesting similarity to The Hunger and American Horror Story: Hotel, at times it feels more like a music video than a film. We are being edged slowly to our… conclusion, and as much as the film may present as a mystery or thriller where Stefan and Valerie might do sleuthing, it’s really all about passion and seduction and desire.
Stefan wears a red leather jacket and he and Valerie ride a red bus back to the hotel. She accuses Stefan of enjoying the sight of the dead body. “And you enjoyed telling me,” he replies. “We’re getting to know each other.” Their connection that at first may have seemed like lust is really about turning each other on through negative stimulation. They will fight to fuck. Healthy, guys. Back at the hotel, Countess Elizabeth hangs out in the lobby doing her knitting. Ilona tries to escape, begging the Countess for her freedom. Not so fast. As the newlyweds return home, the Countess orders some hot rum for them to all enjoy in the lounge. This shouldn’t shock anyone, but yes the Countess does change into a red dress for this little party.
“I know we’re going to be good friends, the three of us,” says the Countess. She intentionally toys with Ilona: putting her down, keeping her in subservient roles, almost making her a cuckold. But at the same time, she plays with Ilona’s fingers and hands in front of Stefan and Valerie, a tangible and intimate sapphic display. “A woman will do anything to stay young,” says the Countess, as she regales everyone with the story of her “ancestor” the Scarlet Countess who was said to have bled 800 people to death in order to live forever. Stefan has heard this tale before and delights in frightening Valerie. It is not unlike talking about a certain dead kiddie from a certain Edward Albee play, although it is sexier. But where DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS individualizes itself is that it presents all relationship pairings as possible seductions, without prejudice.
The next day Stefan finally gets in touch with his mother. Based on the previous build-up, we’re anticipating a regal snob of an old woman, when in reality we get a male-presenting queen in makeup, fine clothes, and a pink scarf. Mother would not feel out of place in a line of Quentin Crisp impersonators. We learn almost nothing about the true nature of Stefan’s relationship to Mother. Are they just two friends? Could they be or had they at one time been more? “Be sure to tell the young woman that Mother sends regards,” says Mother before ending the call. Nothing else comes of this conversation and queer relationship. What is this scene doing in the film – visibility or frights?
Valerie escapes! The Countess follows her to the train station and then convinces her to come back. While she grooms Valerie, Ilona waits in Stefan’s room in order to seduce him. Dual encounters occur: the Countess is sensual and electric but Stefan is a brute. Afterward, Stefan wants to take a post-sex shower with Ilona, who resists him. He tries to force her into the shower and as she fights back, she accidentally cuts herself on a razor. Stefan then “trips” into her, sending her crashing to the floor. She is dead. They have to dispose of the body in a very Clue way. But first: fashion. The Countess has to put on the long leather cloak she wears for Body Disposing. After the burial, the Countess sends Stefan to his own room and does sex to Valerie. She asks, “Does it hurt?” “No,” replies Valerie. “Not at all.”
Stefan and Valerie argue in their room. “Don’t you realize what she is?” Stefan asks. But what is she is? Are we dancing around two taboos: vampire and queer lady? Or does the vampirism absorb the lesbian within? The Countess enters through the balcony wearing a sequin glitter dress that makes Countess Zaleska’s cloaks look like H&M peasant ware. The Countess denies that she is a vampire, but it feels more like a rejection of labels than anything else. Stefan won’t let his wife go, blah blah blah. The Countess makes Valerie kiss Stefan. Valerie is absolutely revolted. Stefan is daylight, Stefan is garlic, Stefan is male. “I am a man and she is mine,” declares Stefan with exactly the same emphatic caveman quality you might expect from such top rate dialogue. The Countess retorts, “Was she yours last night?” Kill me now, stab me in the butt. That was a great comeback and I, having no response, would merely shake everyone’s hands, say, “Enjoy my wife,” and hope the continental breakfast had already started.
Instead, Stefan attacks Valerie. The Countess cracks a crystal bowl over his face, then, with blood spurting everywhere, the Countess and Valerie suck out all the blood from his open wounds. For anyone who does not like the gory deliciousness of this scene, ask yourself: have you ever chanted in crowds, or wore buttons declaring: “Down with the patriarchy!” If so, this gory deliciousness is the clumsy embodiment of all your wishes. Yes it may be obvious, yes I may be over-extrapolating, but this scene in which two queer women defeat a toxic male by sucking out all his blood is exactly what I need to be seeing more of as we head into the midterms. Satisfied with dinner, our lady lovers throw the wrapped corpse over the balcony, then drive off into the night.
Valerie is not an equal partner in this affair. As she chauffeurs the Countess to safety, she is already filling Ilona’s place as servant-lover. “Don’t let the light catch me,” says the Countess, urging Valerie to drive faster before the first hints of daybreak. The Countess has such great lines like “There’s so much of life still to taste” and “My love, my love,” but the sunlight catches up to them as Valerie loses control of the car and they crash. The car explodes, and the Countess bursts into flames. A few months later, we learn Valerie survived. She seduces a young couple on vacation, repeating what the Countess once said to her: “I know we’re going to be good friends, the three of us.”
DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS is spooky, atmospheric, and simple. It does not attempt to rewrite our entire understanding of vampires, nor does it spread acceptance for queer living. These are just people in a hotel, and this is what they do. The interpretations of the material are fun to make, but not essential to the plot. And for as much as it is built up as a very sexual film, the seductions are tasteful and reserved, climaxing in a feverish blood-sucking moment that feels totally worth it. Just in the way that there should be more lesbian bars and clubs and libraries and DMVs, there is always room for more lesbian vampire cinema, and I will be standing by to watch.