Daughters of Darkness 4K UHD Review
Blu-ray Release: October 27, 2020
Audio: English Dolby Atmos; English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 & 1.0; French DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0
Subtitles: English, English SDH, French, Spanish
Run Time: 100 minutes
Director: Harry Kümel
Secret newlyweds Stefan (John Karlen) and Valerie (Daniele Ouimet) stop at a spacious Belgian hotel for the evening. That night, while the couple dines their way through an awkward discussion, a mysterious Hungarian countess calling herself Elizabeth Báthory (Delphine Seyrig) arrives with her 'secretary' Ilona (Andrea Rau). Báthory takes an immediate interest in the couple, specifically Valerie. The next day, the countess goes about seducing and separating the already precarious couple.
Quite often, the vulgar promise of an exploitation film is directly proportional to its simple, high-concept moniker. However, possibly due to their impressive longevity, lesbian or sapphic vampire tales, while typically delivering plenty of lascivious content, tend to invite more dramatic and artistic interpretations than Nazisploitation, women in prison, or cannibal adventure counterparts. In literary terms, sapphic vampires extend back at least as far to Joseph Sheridan le Fanu's novella Carmilla (1796), which predates Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), and was the inspiration for several motion pictures, including Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (minus the lesbianism, 1932), Roger Vadim's Blood and Roses (French: Et mourir de plaisir, 1960), and Roy Ward Baker’s The Vampire Lovers (1970). The Vampire Lovers was produced by Britain’s Hammer Studios as they struggled to remain relevant in an increasingly sexually-charged era and it sparked a brief golden age of sapphic vampire movies. Its popularity (and the popularity of its semi-sequels) coincided with/facilitated a number of European films (mostly from France, Spain, and Belgium, often with German financing), including Jean Rollins’ The Nude Vampire (French: La vampire nue, 1970) and Shiver of the Vampires (French: Le frisson des vampires, 1970), among others, José Ramón Larraz’ Vampyres (1974), Jess Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1971), and the subject of this review, Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness (French: La Rouge aux Lèvres, 1971).
While plenty of sapphic vampire movies are in the game entirely for the titillating combination of sex and violence, the genre’s standouts take their cues from Carmilla, which is, at its heart, a dark romance. Furthermore, the best of these movies really care about the dramatic impact of romance and the exploitative elements tend to serve this, either in literal or representational ways. The fact that straight male directors known for churning trashy, even misogynistic output, like Jean Rollin (whose non-vampire filmography is all but forgotten these days) and Jess Franco (who eventually started making straight up vampire-themed pornography), were able to tap into the emotional components of lesbian romance is wholly unique, and has resulted in “classic” (a relative term, naturally) sapphic vampire movies gaining cult appreciation among women, queer and otherwise. Whatever the final effect, the tenderness of these love stories probably wasn’t intended to fill a void in the horror film scene. In her essay, Daughters of Darkness: The Lesbian Vampire on Film (collected in The Dread of Difference [edited by Barry Keith Grant; University of Texas Press, 1996]), Bonnie Zimmerman discusses the rise of these films off the back of the rise of feminism in late ‘60s and the subsequent backlash. As to how sapphic vampire movies could have been permitted to exist within the largely straight-male-driven exploitation scene (besides the obvious sexual titulation), she describes the possibly hostile meaning as such:
The lesbian vampire, besides being a Gothic fantasy archetype, can be used to express a fundamental male fear that female bonding will exclude men and threaten male supremacy. Lesbianism – love between women – must be vampirism; elements of violence, compulsion, hypnosis, paralysis, and the supernatural must be present. One woman must be a vampire, draining the life of the other woman, yet holding her in a bond stronger than the grave.
For the record, Carmilla predates and partially inspired Dracula, so it’s likely the root of all romantic vampire fiction (note that I am not an expert in vampire fiction). Along with Carmilla, Daughters of Darkness borrows narrative aspects from the legend of Erzsébet Báthory (hence a character being named Elizabeth Báthory), a 16th century countess who supposedly murdered and bathed in the blood of 650 virgins in an effort to retain her youth. Báthory was partial inspiration for an endless array of female vampires and witches throughout fictional history, but was especially prominent throughout early ‘70s European vampire movies.
Even with the genre’s propensity for emotional maturity in mind, Daughters of Darkness is unique among similar vampiric lesbian tales for having arguably more in common with a stage play than a Gothic horror movie, given its limited locations and focus on character interaction over plot. It’s also kind of made in the spirit of the previous decade’s existential/relationship crisis movies, like Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (French: Le Mépris, 1963) or Paul Mazursky’s Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice (1969). It’s a little like a post-new wave, neo-Gothic vampire version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, if you’re feeling particularly pretentious. Daughters of Darkness works as a tragic dissolution of young love, in part due to violent masculinity, and as a satire of neurotic male fears of lesbians emasculating them, enslaving them, and seducing their wives (these themes are admittedly muddied when it is revealed that Stefan has a secret gay lover). If you’re feeling a bit less pretentious, you can also acknowledge that Kümel was tapping into the recent ascension of “porno-chic” – that brief cultural movement between 1969 and 1984 in which upper-class sophisticates decided it was cool to watch porn in public venues (in interviews, Kümel admits that he was asked to make a “commercial film in my style” and was savvy enough to understand that sex sold).
Dread in the face of second-wave feminism and growing LGBTQ equality, as well as earnest explorations of toxic relationships often fueled the neorealist, La Nouvelle Vague, New Hollywood, and even porno-chic movements, but there was an additional, related catalyst, especially where horror movies were concerned. Like similar films, Daughters of Darkness’ love triangles, bloodsucking, and murder are used as both literal actions and metaphors for self-destructive behavior. Kümel is also keen to explore economic themes, which were another common fixture of arthouse and underground cinema, though the idea that vampires represent parasitic social elites is hardly unique to modern horror fiction. Here, the idea is not so subtly represented by Báthory’s flaunting of opulent wealth and her disregard for the agency of non-vampires. To her, humans are either prey, playthings, slaves, or, sometimes, all three (all things she tells Valerie men expect of women). She appears to share genuine affection for her lover/daughter figure, Ilona (who keeps trying to run away), but isn’t so enamored that she doesn’t go about casting a replacement the second she meets Stefan and Valerie. Her obvious enormous wealth initially exerts just as much dominance over the doomed newly-weds as her supernatural powers of seduction. In terms of the supernatural, the film is interesting in that it assumes its audience understands the lore and doesn’t need to be told why, for example, running water injures vampires.
Kümel didn’t have the massive output of Jess Franco, nor were his movies as oddly specific as Jean Rollin’s, but the three were (for a time, at least) ultimately arthouse directors playing genre dress-up for profit. Kümel’s focus here is on colors and contrasts, further illustrating the inequality between vampiric luxury and human austerity in the visual disparity between the hotel’s lavish, yet starkly empty spaces and a handful of gritty street scenes, which are shot using handheld cameras. Costumes, gels, and set dressing are color-coded to evoke specific subtexts. Exterior nights feature ethereal blue tints and interiors, either desaturated to near complete whiteness or bathed in warm oranges and reds. Báthory is clad in reds and blacks (“Nazi colors,” according to Kümel), while Valerie dons virgin whites and Stefan wears different shades of red. It’s not as flamboyant as Mario Bava’s then-aging Technicolor Gothic or Dario Argento’s mind-meltingly vivid Suspiria (1977), but Daughters of Darkness is still a worthy entry in the prismatic Euro-horror lottery.
In North America, Daughters of Darkness was released both cut and uncut on VHS. The uncut, 87-minute version was sold as a critically acclaimed erotic art movie by Continental and the trimmed-down 84-minute edit was released under the alternate title Children of the Night by AIR Video, who sold it as a straight horror movie. Both were upgrades over the original US theatrical release, which was cut by 12 minutes to secure an R rating. The first DVD version was an uncut, 1.66:1 non-anamorphic disc from Anchor Bay, way back in 1998. Blue Underground reissued it in 2003, then again on double-disc DVD in 2008 to coincide with its first Blu-ray release. In the last few years, Blue Underground has been reissuing 4K remastered versions of their most popular Blu-rays on both BD & 4K UHD. In some cases, these remasters have made up for the studio’s early HD mistakes, while others have been moderate upgrades. I assumed Daughters of Darkness was going to be a moderate upgrade, because the ‘08 disc looks just fine, but, when you really compare the old transfer to the 4K remaster, it turns out that this 4K UltraHD disc is one of Blue Underground’s most impressive upgrades (falling behind only their Lucio Fulci titles, which were originally sourced from inferior scans). I’m unable to strip screencaps from a 4K UHD disc at this time, but, fortunately, the included BD copy features the same 16-bit 4K restoration of the original 35mm camera negative, so I’ve included comparison sliders with this review (4K restoration on the left, original Blu-ray on the right).
There are upgrades in sharpness and clarity, as you’d expect from a Blu-ray to UHD upgrade, which can be best seen in wide-angle patterns and the cleanliness of overlapping elements. Film grain is finer and doesn’t exhibit the same flitty CRT quality as the original Blu-ray. There’s still some posterization, but I think this is part of the softer focus utilized by Kümel and cinematographer Eduard van der Enden. The greater enhancements are found in color quality and dynamic range. Without sacrificing blacks or over-amping highlights, the new transfer punches up the darkest sequences, to the point that you can see the difference in my comparisons. You don’t even need the added benefit of 2160p and HDR. What was once dark and muddy is now clear enough to discern without washing out the moody atmosphere of the purposefully dim sequences. Artifacts are limited to slight discoloration in some neutral hue grain and unavoidable chromatic aberration (and other lens effects), but there’s practically zero print damage or obvious compression. I also hadn't noticed until I put the caps in the sliders that the framing of the new transfer is vastly superior.
As they often do, Blue Underground has included a number of audio options, including a new English language Dolby Atmos track, a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 version of the older remix (as far as my ears can make out – it might be based on the Atmos track), and DTS-HD MA 1.0 English and French. Though made in Belgium by a Belgian director and co-produced with French and West German companies, Daughters of Darkness was performed and shot entirely in English. The cast’s accents actually add important flavor to the international vibe (Delphine Seyrig puts vampy Hungarian twinge into her natural French meter, while the other leads speak with their given American, French Canadian, and German accents), so I personally think the film must be viewed in English. From here, the question of which track to choose comes down to taste. Personally, I prefer the original mono and think that the austere, yet dynamic soundtrack sounds lovely in uncompressed 1.0 DTS-HD MA. There’s little fuzz or hiss, aside from occasional aspirated consonants, and François de Roubaix’s uniquely moody score is quite rich, despite being crammed into a single channel. On the other hand, the Dolby Atmos remix is quite clean and they haven’t added unnecessary directional effects, opting instead for subtle atmospheric din. De Roubaix’s music sounds quite nice in stereo, as well, but I still think I prefer the mono track.
Commentary with author Kat Ellinger (2020) – The only new extra is a top-tier commentary track with Kat Ellinger, who quite literally wrote the book on Daughters of Darkness with Devil’s Advocate: Daughters of Darkness (Auteur Publishing/Liverpool University Press, 2018). For good measure, her podcast with Samm Deighan is also titled Daughters of Darkness. Having never read that particular book, I was excited to hear Ellinger’s in-depth exploration of the film, its themes, and cast & crew. Her commentaries are always good, but her deep affection for this particular movie makes this track something special.
Commentary with Harry Kümel (2003) – This track was recorded for the 2003 release. Moderator David Gregory essentially interviews the co-writer/director and the discussion hinges more on the process of making the movie than the underlying meanings.
Commentary with star John Karlen and journalist David Del Valle – This track was recorded for the 1998 DVD. It is charming and personable, but the other two commentaries have more information to offer.
US, international, and French trailers
4 radio spots
Alternate US main titles
Poster & still gallery
Archive extras/featurettes (available on the BD disc only)
Locations of Darkness (21:37, SD) – In this 2006 featurette, Kümel and producer Pierre Drouot wander through various filming locations while discussing the production.
Playing the Victim (15:29, SD) – A 2006 interview with actress Danielle Ouimet, who recalls her early career and the making of Daughter of Darkness, which included altercations with Kümel.
Daughter of Darkness (7:59, SD) – A 2003 interview with actress Andrea Rau, who has fonder memories of the director and her experience on set.
Disc Three (CD)
François de Roubaix’s complete soundtrack (includes two bonus tracks)
The only thing missing from Blue Underground’s previous Blu-ray is a standard definition, anamorphic copy of Vicente Aranda’s The Blood Spattered Bride (Spanish: La Novia Ensangrentada, 1972). That film is currently available on Blu-ray via Mondo Macabro.
The images on this page are taken from the Arrow BD and the Blue Underground BD and sized for the page, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Full-sized .jpg versions can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab.