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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Review: Daughters Of Darkness (1971)

Belgian director Harry Kumel's Daughters Of Darkness is a lush masterpiece of erotic horror.  Its gothic sensibilities and rich cinematography recall the cinema classics of yesteryear, yet it maintains a contemporary edge.  Kumel avoids the predictable clichés of the genre to forge his own distinctive and seductive poetry of bloodletting.

To bring any of you not-in-the-know up to speed, here is your history lesson for the day.  The legend of Elizabeth Bathory is well renowned and has been the subject of countess...er, countless portrayals over the years.  The Hungarian villainess bathed in the blood of slain virgins, believing this would retain her youth.  In 1610 she was formally convicted of torturing and killing 80 women; however, some would attribute her wrath to over 600 casualties before incarceration.  Any way she sliced them, this cemented her place among the "killer elite" and made her perfect for dramatic renderings.  In Daughters Of Darkness, director Kumel places the venerable vixen squarely in modern day Europe.

The film opens with a heated bedroom scene between newlyweds, Stefan and Valerie.  After the tryst, a conversation between the two reveals the groom's hesitations in disclosing the marriage to "Mother". (ahem)  Before they can finish the journey to the man's estate, their train is forced to stop and they seek boarding at a nearby deserted hotel.  Shortly thereafter, the lascivious Liz and her sultry companion Ilona make their own entrance.  We know things will be taking a decidedly strange course when the concierge of the establishment recognizes Ms. Bathory from decades before.  The clincher being - she has not aged a single day from the time he saw her as a small child.  Jinkees!

We become aware that well-to-do Stefan might not be as committed to the relationship as his hopeful mate.  Furthermore, the English gent has a penchant for a bit of sadism, which understandably frightens and alarms his new bride.  And things are not so copacetic between the Countess and her counterpart, either.  She seems to hold contempt for Ilona and hints of replacing her with Valerie, much to the girl's distress.

The pot steadily simmers as the two seductive sirens bewitch the couple.  News of mysterious killings in the adjacent village reach the lodgings; Stefan's behavior becomes increasingly erratic; and Valerie finds herself entertaining inappropriate thoughts of her own.  An intuitive but ineffectual police detective also arrives on the scene to investigate the nearby murders.  Before the film's conclusion, all parties involved become ensnared in Bathory's mesmeric web, with dire consequence.

Kumel's deliberate pacing and atmospheric direction give Daughters Of Darkness an ethereal dreamlike quality that deftly builds in tension.  At first glance, the plot is fairly straight forward; however, one finds many haunting complexities within the narrative.  Meanwhile, the cast throw themselves into their respective roles admirably, most especially the women.  Delphine Seyrig is captivating as the cunning Countess, exuding a grace and elegance reminiscent of the leading ladies of Hollywood's Golden Age; former model Andrea Rau is absolutely stunning as Ilona; and Danielle Ouimet, playing Valerie, is a real peeper pleaser as well.

The actual violence in Daughters Of Darkness is surprisingly reserved, but effective in design.  Make-up effects and the usual vampire clichés are refreshingly absent here and there are only subtle references to traditional lore.  This affords the film room to breathe and not get smothered by some of its exploitive content.  Some highly charged sexual situations push the boundaries of an R rating, but they do serve the nature of the story. 

Foremost, Kumel's film is beautiful to look at and is permeated with compelling imagery.  Careful camera movements and attention to composition and set design prove the director had his craft down pat.  The languid pace and lack of graphic bloodshed might discourage those looking for your typical shock-fest; however, those with patience and an appreciation for artistry will likely find it rich in substance. As it stands, Daughters Of Darkness is a sensual spellbinder that easily outclasses its competition.

Note:  Kumel would unfortunately direct only one other genre film, Malpertius, featuring Orson Welles.  It is a unique and moody surrealistic variation on Greek Mythology that definitely deserves more attention.

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