Atmosphere is such an important aspect of movies. I’ve never attempted to make a film, so I can’t intelligently discuss the techniques involved in pulling off this vital part of the endeavor, but I know quality cinematic atmosphere when it crosses my path. If someone asked me to explain what I mean by this facet of movies, I might either try to describe it verbally, or I might just sit them down and have them watch the 1971 erotic/gothic vampire film Daughters of Darkness.
The spellbinding atmosphere in the movie is there from the opening scene and is strong enough to keep a hold over a bewitched viewer throughout the duration of the story. It’s there in the mesmerizing speaking voice of Delphine Seyrig, who plays an ageless and exotic Hungarian countess who also happens to be a lesbian vampire who feeds off the blood of young girls. The mood is present in the striking physical beauty of Valerie (played by Danielle Ouimet), a young Swiss woman who is unlucky enough to, while on her honeymoon, wind up staying at the same hotel where the Countess decides to stop. It’s in the stormy soul of Stefan (John Karlen), Valerie’s new husband, a blue-blooded Englishman who’s a nice enough guy most of the time but who is prone to sudden and inexplicable violent outbursts and who is drawn to the Countess in a love/hate sort of way. And the atmosphere exists in the personality and look of Ilona, the Countess’s personal secretary and co-drinker of young female blood: Ilona is a moody/sexy Goth girl who is constantly both on the brink of suicidal despair yet ready to seduce somebody.
Daughters of Darkness was the fourth film directed by Harry Kumel, a Belgian. It is considered a Belgian film but is shot in English. None of the acting peoples’ voices were dubbed, and the fact that English was not the first language for some of them brings about musical accents that add yet another piece to the movie’s overall hypnotic tone. The picture just plain looks stunning, to the point where it could probably be enjoyed solely for its visual quality, with the volume muted. But then the story, while it might not be wildly unique in the world of vampire movies, is compelling. Stefan and Valerie have just eloped in Switzerland and are on a train en route to a port where they can catch a ferry to Stefan’s home in England. But their trip gets aborted due to some complication with the train line and they have to hole up on the Belgian coast (poor them). It’s offseason so they are the only guests at the palatial old hotel where they stay – well, they’re alone until the Countess and Ilona materialize at the same inn. Valerie, who seems to come from common stock several rungs below the kind of social and economic class of her husband, is eager for Stefan to tell his mother about their sudden marriage. But Stefan is in no great rush to do that, keeps putting her off, and is relieved about the unexpected derailment (and I’m not going to do a spoiler here but will merely say that viewers new to the film are in for a surprise when Stefan does finally make contact with home).
So, the attractive newlyweds are at the grand old seaside inn on their own, enjoying luxurious breakfasts in bed and sumptuous dinners from a table with a view of the ocean, and arguing about when Stefan is going to fill his mommy in on his new life development. And then here come the other two guests. The concierge is startled when seeing the Countess, because he vividly remembers the same woman staying at the hotel when he was a bellboy 40 years before, yet she hasn’t aged an iota. The Countess isn’t interested in the concierge’s memories, though; she is completely taken with the other guests of the hotel, particularly the beguilingly beautiful girl from the couple. She immediately launches into befriending the pair, and while both try to resist her at times, there is simply no holding off this powerfully enchanting femme fatale. Ilona becomes a factor in the goings-on between the trio as the power battle develops. As all this occurs, a series of bizarre murders of young women are happening in a nearby town – the deceased girls’ throats were slit yet there’s no blood around. Hmm, wonder who might’ve done all that. Ok, enough plot.
Another steady characteristic of Daughters of Darkness is its sexuality. And what’s so impressive is that it’s arousing in that respect from the opening to the finale, yet there is very little in the way of actual scenes of people being together amorously. The eroticism is just there and is as strong in its force as is the movie’s overall riveting atmosphere. It’s there in the Countess’s coaxing voice, in Ilona’s sensuous lips, in the turbulent physical attraction between Stefan and Valerie.
I’m not a vampire movie buff per se. But I’m certainly open to seeing this type of film if somebody tells me there’s an especially good one to check out, and have seen my good share of the features over the years. I first watched Daughters of Darkness around 15 years ago when a friend recommended it, and hadn’t seen it again before giving it a fresh viewing before writing this piece. My initial experience of it left such a strong impression on me that if you had asked me any time over that decade and a half if I could recommend a vampire movie, I would have uttered its title without hesitation. Seeing it this second time only drove home that conviction in me all the more.
Brian Greene's short stories, personal essays, and writings on books, music, and film have appeared in more than 20 different publications since 2008. His articles on crime fiction have also been published by Crime Time, Paperback Parade, Noir Originals, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, NC with his wife Abby, their daughters Violet and Melody, their cat Rita Lee, and too many books. Follow Brian on Twitter @brianjoebrain.
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