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Daughters of Darkness (1971): Blue Underground’s 4K Release

A Euro art-horror evocation of the Elizabeth Bathory legend filtered through a gothic libertine lens, Daughters of Darkness is one of the most gorgeous horror stories of its era (or any other for that matter). This sumptuous tale unfolds around newlyweds Stefan and Valerie Chilton (John Karlen and Danielle Ouimet), on their way to Chilton Manor in England but languishing luxuriously in an ornate but almost-deserted seaside hotel in Belgium. 

Into the Old World opulence, sweeping in like Marlene Dietrich, the Countess Elizabeth Bathory (Delphine Seyrig) arrives: jet black, fur-collared coat, veil floating over a marble face, icy blonde hair, speaking in deep, exquisite tones. She reminds the concierge of a woman who stayed in the hotel forty years before, but she hasn’t aged. With a beautifully sculpted face and short black bob of hair Ilona (Andrea Rau), her assistant, is a silent film star and flapper sex symbol Louise Brooks. The Countess sets her sights on Valerie; Ilona seduces Stefan with her eyes. Meanwhile, there is a spate of murders of pretty young women, throats slashed, not a drop of blood left. 

The erotic and the sadistic begin to merge. While on a day trip to Bruges, Stefan and Valerie are on scene for the removal of one of the vampire’s victims. As the corpse is wheeled by on a gurney, Stefan seems spellbound and aroused. Later, he drops into an erotic trance while describing the crimes of Elizabeth Bathory, sensually describing the torture and murder of her victims while the modern-day Countess drapes her hands around him in mutual ecstasy. He turns violent towards his wife, in one scene beating her with his belt. Under the influence of the Countess? 

There are also hints that the aristocracy is quite literally a different breed from the rest of us. Stefan is from an aristocratic family, whose mother thinks that aristocrats are different and therefore it’s intimated that she won’t approve of his new wife. His father, when we see him briefly, is a pale, slug-like beast that pats the head of his servant as if he were a dog. 

Countess Bathory is portrayed as a true libertine – rejecting moral boundaries and living free from constraint, singularly pursuing personal desires without thought of ethics or social mores. In this vein, Daughters of Darkness is one of the most purely sensual experiences in all of cinema, filled with voluptuous details like: the contracting of a woman’s eye as she dies; the Countess unfolding her coat like bat wings to engulf a potential victim; the sound and texture of the sand as it falls into a hole dug in a beach; colonnades throwing linear shadows (reminiscent of cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca’s casting of hard shadows his noirs); glittering points of light bouncing off a dress; the deep purring tones of the Countess’ voice. And the three female protagonists are all, in their own unique ways, achingly beautiful. 

Director Harry Kumel and cinematographer Eduard van der Enden paint each frame with vivid, sensual details with a command of lighting and color that is evident from the opening frames. Skeletal tree branch silhouetted against a pale cerulean sky. Violet lighting bathing the interior of a train cabin.  The colour red haunting the whole film – on clothes, vehicles, furniture, lipstick, razor cuts. “The light hurts my eyes”, says the Countess, and Ilona removes her thin bright red scarf and drapes it over the lamp, turning the entire room scarlet. For the whole running time, your eyeballs and ears are massaged with a mink glove. Even the burning of an impaled corpse is rendered with exquisite beauty, the plasma of the flames licking seductively as they expand and devour. 

The stunning, achingly beautiful 4K transfer on Blue Underground’s disc of this arthouse/erotic horror masterpiece does full justice to the sumptuous colour palette. This is a brand new 4K restoration from the original 35mm camera negative, supervised and approved by Harry Kümel. It’s more than reference quality: this disc has sexual relations with your visual cortex. You need it. 

The 4K disc has three audio commentaries: 

  • With Co-Writer/Director Harry Kümel
  • With star John Karlen and journalist David Del Valle
  • With Kat Ellinger, author of “Devil’s Advocates: Daughters of Darkness” 

There are also the following extras on the 4K platter:

  • Locations of Darkness – Interviews with Co-Writer/Director Harry Kümel and Co-Writer/Co-Producer Pierre Drouot (22 mins). This feature deals with the two locations used for the hotel: the Astoria in Brussels (interiors) and Hotel Des Thermes in Ostende (exterior shots). 
  • Playing the Victim – Interview with Star Danielle Ouimet (15 mins)
  • Daughter of Darkness – Interview with Star Andrea Rau (8 mins)
  • Theatrical Trailers (U.S., international, and French) and Radio Spots
  • Alternate U.S. Main Titles – Featuring a title song! A song that’s terrible, for the record. 
  • Poster & Still Gallery

The package includes a blu ray disc, which has the movie plus the same extras as on the 4K. There is also a booklet with a new essay by Michael Gingold. The artwork on the disc case is reversible, the new art on one side and theatrical poster on the other. The first pressing has a  lenticular slipcover.

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About Paul Sparrow-Clarke

A child of the ’60s and ’70s, I was born in Caerleon, Wales, where I spent my formative years. The ubiquitous ghost stories of the region piqued my interest in horror at an early age and from there I gravitated to books on horror films, with Dennis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Films, Alan Frank’s Horror Movies, and Ed Naha’s Horrors: From Screen to Scream being particularly influential. With the help of these books, I became an “expert” on screen terror far before I was allowed to see any of the films on the telly. I moved to Alberta, Canada in 1981, and the culture shock (and the cold winters) did nothing to dim my interest in genre cinema. Here I discovered Fangoria magazine, VHS tapes, and the fact that my tall height was a ticket to sneaking into Restricted movies in the theatre. Thus began a banquet of terror treats that continues to this day, though I no longer fear being asked for ID at the box office. I have worked as a retailer, cinema usher, invertebrate zoology technician, map cataloguer, bureaucrat, teacher, freelance business/technical writer, and now earn my keep in university administration. I have previously written about genre cinema for Her Majesty’s Secret Servant and We Belong Dead magazines and books, and I’ve hosted public film screenings and co-hosted film podcasts.

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