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Horror

Daughters of Darkness (Les lèvres rouges, Bel/Fra/West Germany 1971)

Andrea Rau as the vampire's 'companion'

Andrea Rau as the vampire's 'companion'

I imported this DVD from the US. The 2003 disc from Blue Underground is NTSC but coded Region 0. I was following up a suggestion from Stephen when I was discussing Let the Right One In and looking for different European takes on the vampire film.

Directed by the Belgian Harry Kümel, the film is a European co-production filmed in English with all the actors delivering their own dialogue. This gives an intriguing flavour to the exchanges. The date suggests an affinity with the more extreme end of European horror cinema, but I found this to be much more subtle and less sensational than, for instance, Dario Argento (which is not a criticism of Argento). The casting coup in acquiring Delphine Seyrig for the central role is the key to the film’s success. She is breathtaking in every way.

The film belongs, in one sense to the cycle of lesbian vampire films at the end of the 1960s and the start of the 1970s. I confess that I avoided these at the time, though I remember some critical attention paid to this title and director. Seyrig plays the iconic character of these films – Countess Elizabeth Bathory who allegedly killed 800 virgins for their blood. This time, the ageless Countess is touring Belgium with her young companion, leaving in her wake a number of drained corpses of young women. When the couple arrive in Winter in the deserted seaside resort of Ostende, they are delighted that the isolated hotel on the promenade has only two other guests – a young couple in the honeymoon suite, supposedly waiting for a ferry to the UK (although the young man seems very reluctant to catch it). Now their fate is sealed.

The seaside setting is very well-used. The wind-swept dunes and the dark building looming out of the night is the perfect Gothic setting. The only other location of note is Bruges which the young couple visit, only to stumble across the police discovery of another body. This sequence was so reminiscent of Don’t Look Now that I couldn’t help thinking that Nic Roeg must have seen it. The old medieval town with canals and narrow streets just cries out for fleeting glimpses of figures rounding the corner or the slow passage of the dead carried on a stretcher. Seaside and canals – there is something about the water’s edge as a signifier of moving into another world.

Large empty hotels are also disturbing environments and Kümel and his team are inventive with decor and costume. The first two-thirds of the film moves quite slowly, but the last third is action-packed. There is an interesting essay on the film in Jump Cut, arguing that the film offers itself up to a feminist reading. This is well-argued and pretty convincing. The young man is quite a problematic character and the narrative certainly tends towards sympathy with the three women.

I’m getting increasingly interested in the way in which vampire films play with the ‘rules’ of the genre. Daughters of Darkness utilises the fear of the light and running water and exploits the role of the vampire’s servant/companion played nicely here by the German Andrea Rau, who is interviewed in the DVD Extras. It must have been a nice change from her usual roles in German sex films. It’s interesting that although there is a fair amount of nudity including ‘full frontal’ shots of Rau in Daughters, the most erotic moments are probably associated with Seyrig’s gentle caresses and beautifully delivered suggestive dialogue. The role of the companion seems more complex in this film as there is a sense of her own desire as well as of ‘service’ to her mistress. On the other hand, the role of the ‘vampire hunter’ in the narrative is more peripheral than usual – perhaps this is an attempt to implicate the audience with the hunter figure much more of a voyeur than an active agent.

This is certainly a horror film to watch again in terms of its take on the vampire genre.

Discussion

One thought on “Daughters of Darkness (Les lèvres rouges, Bel/Fra/West Germany 1971)

  1. I think it unfortunate that Harry Kumel has only made a small number of films(having spent many years in the TV industry).Having seen both “Les Levres Rouges” and “Malpertuis”(1971), I think that Kumel has a terrific cinematic eye,especially for style and colour.I also like the surrealness of his films,which give them an adult fairy tale quality.Infact, “Malpertuis” is a perfect example of this.In this film we have an old man(Orson Welles),who has found the last remaining gods of ancient Greece on an island and imprisoned them in his gothic mansion.When his nephew(Mathieu Carriere)visits him and sees a beautiful and mysterious woman(Susan Hampshire),events take on an even stranger and more dangerous turn.

    I agree with your description of Delphine Seyrig,she is superb in “Les levres Rouges”.Infact,like Harry Kumel, she made too few films. I recently saw her in Alain Resnais’s “Muriel,Ou Le Temps D’Un Retour”(1963)and again she was terrific.

    What I find interesting about her role in “Les levres Rouges”,especially in the light of the films feminist reading,is her support for womens rights.Apparently,she was a key member in the establishment of the Paris based “Centre Audiovisual Simone De Beauvoir”.A centre dedicated to the preservation of films and other resources made by and about women. She also directed a documentary,”Sois Belle Et Tais-Toi”(1977),which featured actress’s talking about their experiences of sexism ,in the film industry.

    Posted by Stephen Gott | August 27, 2009, 14:10

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