European horror is a thing of beauty. Cooked up in a cauldron of existential dread, grief and artistic audacity, films such as Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, Dario Argento’s Suspiria, and indeed Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness each possess a magical realism, existing in a realm both inseparably real and fantastical. Whilst popular American often focuses on the fear of the other, European horror pierces into the terror of one’s own human mind.
Digging deep into the human psyche, Daughters of Darkness is an erotic horror film set in Belgium, following a newlywed couple who encounter a mysterious countess on their journey. The red-lipped stranger introduces herself as Countess of Bathory, a woman who the locals swear hasn’t aged despite being here for 40 years before she becomes obsessed with the young couple and hatches her evil plans.
Played by Delphine Seyrig of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, director Harry Kümel noted that he styled her countess character after Marlene Dietrich, the German-American actor famous for Shanghai Express. Influenced by the concepts of surrealism and expressionism, Kümel manages to craft a film suffused with an artistic style, as well as a sincerely sexual European identity.
Pulling together both style and substance, it is Delphine Seyrig’s performance that grounds the film, helping to create one of the finest revisionist vampire films ever made, featuring unabashed lesbian attitudes at a time when such remained controversial. Clad in furs and indulgent gowns, Seyrig’s Elizabeth Báthory is a mysterious, compelling figure who travels alongside her secretary Ilona, played by Andrea Rau, before encountering the newlyweds and becoming obsessed with seducing the innocent bride.
Such results in a vampire story with a strong throughline of female empowerment, joining the likes of Roy Ward Baker’s Vampire Lovers and José Ramón Larraz’s Vampyres that too share this same sentiment. Journeying into the darkness of individual desire, Elizabeth Báthory works to drive a wedge between the wife and her husband, telling her: “One must never be afraid to look deep down into the darkest depths of oneself. Where the light never reaches,” as the young wife becomes increasingly tempted by the mysterious stranger.
With beautiful set design and costume work, it is remarkable that Daughters of Darkness is 50 years old, considering its innovative approach to cinematic style. Despite its existence for half a century, Harry Kümel’s film remains a cult classic and critical achievement, going on to inspire countless vampire films and characters since its release. Most notably, Lady Gaga borrowed the appearance of Delphine Seyrig’s Elizabeth Báthory in the television series American Horror Story: Hotel where she appears alongside Kathy Bates, Sarah Paulson and Evan Peters.
No doubt an ancient inspiration of the vampire renaissance that occurred in the mid-2000s with the likes of Let the Right One In, Twilight and Only Lovers Left Alive from Jim Jarmusch, Daughters of Darkness remains a pioneering horror classic with an idiosyncratic European identity.