From the start of the 1971 Belgian horror film, 'Daughters of Darkness,' there is a thick air of mystery and an uncertain ambience of the macabre. A newlywed couple, Stefan (John Karlen) and Valerie (Danielle Ouimet), travels by train that makes loud, banshee-like screeches in the middle of the night, and is stopped for no apparent reason by a man with a red lantern hiding in the uncanny darkness. They arrive at a seafront resort in Ostend which is open during the off-season. The vast and extravagant hotel is deserted of all guests except for the concierge (Paul Esser), leaving the honeymooners with the run of the place. That is, until a weird but enigmatic Hungarian countess (Delphine Seyrig) and her secretary Ilona (Andrea Rau) join the pair for nightly conversations.
Director Harry Kümel, who co-wrote the screenplay with producer Pierre Drouot, creates an intriguing and oddly fascinating film about the secrets people keep. And perhaps, how such behavior can be construed as somewhat appealing. Stefan avoids telling Valerie more about his family and a supposedly overbearing mother. In fact, we see him have issue with calling home to announce his new marriage. And we know nothing of his wife, a literal blank slate that's not all too different from the beautiful Ilona. The countess — played to perfection by Seyrig ('Last Year at Marienbad'), who is said, by filmmakers, to have channeled Marlene Dietrich — is also seductively cryptic about her origins. The film's plot comes with a kind of reserved attribute about it as well, revealing minor bits of exposition as the story moves along.
Much of this mystery is in our interest of the countess herself, a lovely and resplendent woman who quickly warms up to the newlyweds. The story never outright claims the overly-confident lady is a creature of the night, but we're clued in to the possibility by the hotel clerk, who remembers her from when he was a child looking exactly the same age. The dead giveaway is, of course, her name being Elizabeth Báthory and the suspicion that death seems to follow her. There's also something alarmingly strange about Stefan. As we watch the couple vacation, we slowly realize the couple hasn't known each other for long, their marriage was on a hasty whim, and he apparently has a violent streak. We don't like Stefan as the movie progresses, and his disturbing behavior is never fully explained.
Surrounding his characters with the gothic immenseness of the hotel, Kümel uses space as an important role in how these people interact with one another. If two people are not seen with a great emptiness separating them, looking at one another from afar, then they're intimately close, shrouded in sadistic anger or talking endlessly about nothing. One memorable scene is when Stefan and Ilona turn towards each other while in the hotel's lounge, an enormous grand room that looks like something out of a dream. While he stands in the middle of the room and she is halfway up the stairs, their stare is immediately recognizable as lustful though they've only just met. Kümel does marvelously in using the resort's unique architecture to build upon the film's atmosphere of mystery and the macabre.
'Daughters of Darkness' is considered an erotic vampire film — the sort of sexually-explicit material that suddenly became popularity in the 1970s. But the low-budget feature doesn't dwell much on the lurid details or make a big fuss about its horror elements. The story's vampire aspect is generally implied while the nudity seems a natural result of the scene, never really feeling as if intended to arouse the audience. The movie is far too focused on the characters and the somber anonymity that surrounds them. It's what makes Harry Kümel's 'Daughters of Darkness' so darn appealing and entertaining. Things are only hinted at and never disclosed, but viewers are left with an amazingly satisfying conclusion which has made the film a highly-stylized cult horror favorite.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Daughters of Darkness' arrives on Blu-ray on a Region Free, BD50 disc, housed in the standard blue keepcase. At startup, viewers are taken straight to the main menu selection with full-motion clips playing in the background.
Blue Underground brings the 1971 vampire drama to Blu-ray with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode that is at once beautiful and outstanding, but soon spoiled by some very noticeable and off-putting artifacts. Presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, the video comes with an intentionally subdued contrast level to give the movie a gloomy appearance. Details are well-resolved and often very distinct for a forty-year-old production, showing terrific resolution and textural definition of clothing, architecture and facial complexions. Colors are accurate and bright, particularly reds, while other hues appear more natural. Blacks are generally deep with good visibility in the shadows. The image also displays a pleasing depth of field and a consistent grain structure.
Drawbacks in the transfer come by way of color fringing around the edges of some objects and some easy to detect chroma noise in the fine lines of a few scenes. There are also instances of banding in a couple fade-outs. Most troubling is the evidence of edge enhancement. From a certain distance, it may not be a glaring issue, but it's there nonetheless and observable enough to distract from enjoying the movie. If not for these anomalies, 'Daughters of Darkness' would make a remarkable presentation on Blu-ray.
The erotic vampire picture also comes with a good monaural soundtrack that nicely surpasses previous incarnations. Dialogue reproduction is intelligible and precise, where fans can enjoy each melodramatic conversation with terrific fidelity. The DTS-HD Master Audio track exhibits wonderful clarity and acoustics, allowing for the echoes of voices to travel through the halls of the empty hotel and subtle ambient effects to be clearly heard in the background. Dynamics are cleanly rendered and surprisingly expansive during scenes of loud screeching. There's really no bass to speak of, but along with the musical score playing throughout, the lossless mix shows a great deal of presence and sounding pretty much like one would expect from a low-budget horror feature of 1971.
Porting over the same set of supplements from the 2-Disc Special Edition of 2006, Blue Underground unleashes 'Daughters of Darkness' with a nice collection of bonuses that fans can sink their teeth into. The only things missing are poster and still galleries.
'Daughters of Darkness' is a 1971 horror film from filmmaker Harry Kümel and features a memorable performance by Delphine Seyrig as the legendary Elizabeth Báthory. The highly-stylized vampire feature with strong erotica overtones offers an interesting story full of mystery and the macabre, one genre fans and cult enthusiasts can enjoy repeatedly. This Blu-ray edition from Blue Underground arrives with a lovely but troubled picture presentation and adequate audio. Supplements are the same as those seen on the 2-Disc Special Edition, making this a strong upgrade for cult aficionados and a decent rental for neophytes.