Worth it for the pretty pictures.
* * *
Premise: Stefan and Valerie check into a lavish Belgian hotel after a whirlwind romance and impulsive wedding. Valerie gradually begins to realize that Stefan is keeping secrets from her, and may not be the man she thinks he is. Her disenchantment grows when a mysterious and alluring pair of Hungarian women arrive at the hotel, one of whom gives her name as Elizabeth Báthory…
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: looking good mustn’t be underestimated when it comes to film, which is, after all, a visual art form. Cinema isn’t simply about pointing a camera at people while they do things. Every so often I see a movie that almost entirely lives and dies on its aesthetic principles. The films of Jean Rollin are a good example. Another is the 1971 Belgian film Daughters of Darkness.
The big problem with Daughters of Darkness is that it’s a perfectly good suspense thriller with a supernatural-horror element bolted on that ends up not really adding much to the film most of the time and occasionally detracts from the overall quality. Stefan is actually a fairly intriguing character (casting issues–which I’ll get to in a moment–aside), and in particular I wanted to know what was going on with Stefan. He’s probably a con artist of some sort, and he’s clearly not who he claims he is (in the film’s best scene, he finally calls and converses with his mother, a character he’s spoken much about without really ever saying anything). And I was very disappointed that we never did get much in the way of answers about him, not because I insist on having every plotline tied up with a neat little ribbon, but because I found his backstory more interesting than what was going on between the machinations of the lesbians in the room down the hall.
The idea of a bored and banal vampire (well, probably a vampire) haunting a series of lush European pleasure-palaces actually has legs, apart from the fact that there really isn’t any reason this particular vampire absolutely needs to be Elizabeth Báthory. But Elizabeth’s plans to drive a wedge between Stefan and Valerie are just dull, and her companion Ilona comes off as whiny when she needs to be tragic.
Could it be an issue of casting? There are a couple of entertaining performances in minor roles–Paul Esser as the hotel concierge and Georges Jamin as a retired police officer–but overall the ensemble is underwhelming. Stefan is supposed to be English but is played by an American (John Karlen, best known either as Willie Loomis on the soap-opera version of Dark Shadows or as Tyne Daly’s husband on Cagney and Lacey); Valerie is supposed to be Swedish but is played by a French-Canadian (Danielle Ouimet); Elizabeth and Ilona are supposed to be Hungarian but are respectively played by French (Delpine Seyrig, Last Year at Marienbad and The Day of the Jackal) and German (Andrea Rau) actresses. None of this would matter if the actors could convincingly pass for their assumed nationalities, but they can’t. In fact, it sometimes seems as if Rau is the only one trying; Ouimet and Seyrig never bother trying to sound anything other than Gallic, and I wouldn’t even begin to guess at what kind of accent Karlen’s attempting. The poor acting causes the script to revert much too often to show-don’t-tell: Valerie talks constantly about how Stefan seems to be fascinated by death, but that’s not the story told by Karlen’s performance.
The saving grace of the film is Harry Kümel’s direction: the cinematography is wonderful, the use of vivid color rivals Argento’s best work, and he exploits the beauty of his European locations to its fullest potential. Even then, however, he seems completely lost when it comes to death scenes. (Particularly the bowl scene–I know this is supposed to be a work of fantasy, but come on. That completely violates the laws of physics.)
As hopeless as the performances (and occasionally the script) are, the visuals and overall atmosphere of the film are strong enough to merit a recommendation on that basis alone (if that’s what you’re into). But ultimately it does take more than putting beautiful women in beautiful settings and photographing them beautifully to make a good film.Have You Read...?