Archetypal figures of fear since the dawn of history, vampires have been a mainstay of our species since man first looked into the shadows and felt the chill fingers of death around his throat. A mainstay of genre cinema, the undead occupy a wondrous, strange position in the pantheon of fright figures, enticing at the very same time they repulse, scaring and seducing with equal ease. Representative of our human fear of, and fascination with, mortality (and a hoped for afterlife), the vampire embodies/represents on both a literal and metaphorical level our tragic and paradoxical attraction for those things which mean us most harm. A far cry away from the undead of ancient oral folk tales, the relatively modern cinematic vampire has almost always disguised his lecherous intent beneath a respectable, attractive guise. Besides suggesting a deeper philosophical context, namely the falseness/dangers of exterior appearances, this dual nature -- the sexual appeal of the hoary undead -- often points to the undeniable (if not always readily apparent) relationship between beauty and decay, sex and death. And while the classic vampire movies, from Tod Browning's Dracula to Terence Fisher's Hammer opuses chose to cloak this relationship beneath atmospheric subtlety, the late 60s-70s saw the rise of a bold new style of fear film, injecting a brazen directness of approach and honesty into this trope. Crossing thresholds of taste and expectation, Daughters of Darkness was one of a handful of vampire films that treated the sexual nature of vampirism, and the sado-masochistic nature of the victim/victimizer relationship itself, with wide-eyed explicitness. Directed with skill and enthusiasm by Harry Kümel, this descent into sexual delirium is now celebrated in a deluxe, special 2-disc set by genre specialists Blue Underground.
In a surprisingly sophisticated, psychologically complex plot that draws inspiration from several literary and filmic sources, Daughters of Darkness is at once both exploitative and thoughtful in its deeply unsettling analysis of relationships. Including shades of J. Sheridan LeFanu's Carmilla and oral folklore, the chief thematic inspiration of the film is culled from the all too real historical accounts of Elizabeth Bathory, an aristocrat whose bathing in the blood of virgins has provided source material for several plays and films. When newly married Valerie (Danielle Quimet) and Stefan (John Karlen) arrive at a seaside resort during the off-season, they attempt to begin their new life with romance and laughter. Despite Stefan's immediately suspicious desire to keep his wife from visiting his ancestral estate and family (an element never explored fully, quite unceremoniously dropped), and a general air of unease that permeates the atmosphere, they seem relatively happy. This all changes when they meet Countess Bathory (Delphine Seyrig) who, along with her travelling companion Ilona (Andrea Rau) -- the only other visitors at the hotel. As mysterious, savage murders began to haunt the local town, Valerie and Stefan begin to drift apart, victims of the Countess's attentions. Leaching onto them as both a mother figure and seductive temptress, the Countess inserts a wedge between the couple, making them question not only their loyalty to one another but their own true natures. Of course the Countess is none other than the vampiric ancestor which she speaks so frequently of, and a passion for the timid Valerie burns in her immortal heart. As a local ex-detective begins snooping around, and Stefan finds himself enticed by the cold-hearted Ilona, a spiralling descent into tragic betrayal becomes inescapable.
Embracing the controversial nature of sexual lust and violent death with graphic honesty and a before-undreamed of directness, Daughters of Darkness, along with such fear-fare as Vampyres and Blood and Roses, probed between the legs of their characters as energetically as they sank ivory fangs in throats. A Fairy tale for adults, this orgy of sin and semen is a triumph of popular storytelling with artistic leanings. Never forgetting that his first duty is to entertain, Kumel cloaks his expressionistic picture in layers of mood, exploiting to grand, feverish effect the controversial nature of sex and violence. A ballet of brutality, this decadent opera offers unrepentant bloodshed and gratuitous nudity, but it does so with style. While one is encouraged to enjoy the action at face value, deeper meanings/themes are available beneath the carnage for those willing to look. Love is exposed in this story not as a saving grace or thing of wonder, but as a trap, a death of individuality, freedom, and personal will. Beauty and the grotesque are each juxtaposed to reflect the seemingly paradoxical similarities that exist between one another. One of the few vampire films that lent maturity to the vampire, this film injects sophisticated sensuality into a symbol even then in danger of becoming cliché. Such a pitfall here is avoided by the psychological underpinning of the narrative. It is interesting to note that the supernatural is taken as fact. Once accepted, the occult material is largely dismissed for a more thorough emphasis on real life relationships. Kumel focuses on the frailty of appearances and the deceptions of love. Relationships are every bit as much monsters as the undead. Kumel's inventive compositions infiltrate the intense manoeuvrings between characters with the haunting opulence of an opium dream. Cold blues and hot reds occur throughout, charging scenes with degrees of lust and fear. Of course the story's believability and cruel sexuality is successful in large part due to Seyrig's fem fatal grace.
The third US edition of this technically troubled disc, Blue Underground provides in this the best looking print of the film yet displayed. Surpassing both Anchor Bay's earlier release as well as their own 2003 edition, Daughters of Darkness has been granted a new High Definition transfer from new source material. Whereas past incarnations suffered from uneven colors, overly dark scenes, and persistent grain, this new 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen edition offers a clean, near spotless image. Visual integrity is preserved, colors are vibrant, and no splotching is noticeable. Audio was never really a problem, so not as much difference is noticeable. The Dolby Digital Mono track does its job, with no distractions.
Extras are extensive for this release. Some surprising new supplements join older material originally gathered for the 2003 release. In a refreshing change of pace, these extras are relevant and quick moving, more than the filler which so many companies are packing their product with nowadays. First up is the audio commentary (from the 2003 BU edition) with Kümel. The moderator here keeps things moving quickly, and the track is informative and fun without being hurried or suffering from the expected lapses of dialogue. Nor does the tone ever drift into an academic lecture. While he is certainly intelligent, Kümel's enthusiasm for movie making is as evident as his expertise, and we benefit from both as he discusses various shots, individual scenes, and fond memories of the actors. A second audio commentary, this time with Karlen and David Del Valle, is less substantial yet easily as fun, with the actor focusing primarily on his craft and the chaotic nature of the industry. Lending us a cultural and aesthetic context of reference with which to better appreciate the feature, the next two features score discussions with the crew. Interviewing Harry Kümel and co-writer/producer Pierre Drouo, "Locations of Darkness" revisits the hotel locations that both comprised the main hotel of the movie, serving as tour guides through the interiors as they recall incidents of the shoot. A walk through grind house nostalgia, this featurette is followed by "Playing the Victim," which features an interview with actress Danielle Ouimet. Waxing poetic about the movie, her role, and her relationships with fellow actors and the director, she is surprisingly generous in her estimation of the film, and comes across as genuinely intriguing. "Daughter of Darkness," less interesting in scope, is nevertheless appreciated, as Andrea Rau recalls the Spring-time of her career. A theatrical trailer, radio spots, and generous still gallery round out the first disc of extras.
In a move sure to have fans of exploitation and gothic horror salivating, the second disk features as an extra the entire uncut version of The Blood Spattered Bride. While not as elegant or refined in either theme or production as Daughters of Darkness, this exercise in inspired terror is a wonderful addition to the package, and makes for a grand and gory double feature. Squirming with skin and sin, this fan favorite combines charnel-house atmosphere with a story that explores similar thematic territory, charting the bloody byways between passion and violence, death and liberation. A stylistic, deeply personal take on Carmilla, this carnal confectionary toys with our emotions and expectations, showing the beauty in repulsion and the pleasure in death. Tragedy and lust play one against the other in a story devoted to sensation and emotion, not logic.
Inspired very loosely by LeFanu's early Victorian novella, the uneven narrative features a young man (Simón Andreu) who, on a honeymoon with his young wife Susan (Maribel Martin), experiences terror from both the supernatural and the uneasy bonds of his relationship. When Susan fantasizes about the contradictory pleasure/dread of being raped, she pleads to be taken away from the hotel where her husband brought them. In a plot device as nonsensical as much of the dialogue, they soon arrive at a classically gothic castle -- appropriately moody, with the crumbling condition of the edifice perhaps symbolizing the deteriorating nature of their marriage -- that belongs to the Karstein family. Far from improving, Susan's nervousness grows, as do her increasingly erratic -- and erotic -- fantasies of cruelty. Envisioning a sexually enticing Bride, much like herself, Susan isn't prepared to later meet the very figure she dreamed of when Mircalla (Alexandro Bastedo) arrives at the estate. Mircalla is the consummate fem fatal, a black widow who entices with the very instruments of her murderous intent. Overpowering the emotionally frail and rather naïve Susan, Mircalla feeds off her younger charge emotionally, absorbing her identity and molding her in her own blood-stained image. Her hatred for men, itself rather like a force of chaotic nature, leads to a dance of carnality and bloodshed impressive to behold.
Neither as well written or directed as Kumel's film, Blood Spattered Bride is still a wondrous exercise in overflowing imagery. Mood rather than narrative ingenuity is emphasized. It would be too easy to compare the film to the inspired death-and-desire operas of Jean Rollin, for while director Vincent Aranda's style exposes a similar poetry -- and the ability to wed outré content with hallucinatory images -- The Blood Spattered Bride achieves its own identity in the suggested (if not clearly driven) chaos of its narrative -- something often missing in Rollin's consciously fragmented, surrealistic nightmares. Generous doses of gore and skin serve as both eye candy and thematic contrasts to the images of decaying castles and crumbling aristocracy. Meeting the expectations of this Gothic-inspired hybrid sub-genre, Aranda's love-song to dark beauty and the savagery of lust is missing one of the chief hallmarks of this exploitation staple -- namely, the lesbian limb-wrangling so often emphasized in exploitation. Instead, Aranda seems to have taken a cue from Stoker's Dracula and the Carmilla novella, suggesting the kinship and intimacy between the two principle female characters without than hitting us over the head with graphic depictions of it. While this may make for a less exciting thrill, the emotional closeness of the women, once established, injects greater intimacy and emotional depth into the story.
The Blood Spattered Bride is offered in1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, free of all but the minutest grain. Colors are vibrant and bold, and the picture as a general rule is incredibly sharp. Audio is presented in Mono does its job, sounding perfectly fine. Lacking the extras that the first feature sported (not surprising, considering this is one of that film's extras!), supplements include a double feature theatrical trailer of Bride and I Dismember Mama. Easily one of the most significant European genre DVD releases as the year closes, this double bill belongs in your library!
Review by William P. Simmons
|Released by Blue Underground|
|Region 1 - NTSC|
|see main review|