Daughters of Darkness (1971) is a lesbian vampire movie, one of several that were kicking around the international market in the early 1970s.
It arrived fashionably late to the party. Hammer’s lesbian vampire output, the Karnstein trilogy, which I’m seeing soon, and which started with The Vampire Lovers (1970), had already concluded with Twins of Evil (1971) before Daughters of Darkness got off the ground. The great Jess Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1971) had likewise already come and gone. But The Blood Splattered Bride (1972) hadn’t been made yet. Neither had Daughter of Dracula (1972), another Jess Franco entry, so the appetite for soft-core girl-on-dead-girl clearly hadn’t run its course.
But there’s nothing that remarkable about lesbian vampires in horror, even Jess Franco’s lesbian vampires, because we’ve never had a cycle of vampire movies that didn’t include some sort of lesbian element. Dracula’s Daughter (1936), the official sequel to Dracula (1931) and maybe not the best film for burning your bra to, lets the cameras roll as Countess Zaleska (Gloria Holden) admires the beauty of her victim Lili (Nan Gray), and asks her to remove her blouse, and gives her wine, and has her stand by the fire. The spurt of teen-rebellion monster movies inspired by Rebel Without a Cause (1955) that I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) kicked off comes right back with Blood of Dracula (1957) and a radical/separatist chemistry teacher (Louise Lewis) who turns her student Nancy (Sandra Harrison) into a lesbian vampire, or at least a bi-curious one, on the campus of an all-girls boarding school. And surely I’m not alone in imagining how the Brides of Dracula entertain themselves while the count is off courting his Lucys and Minas.
This trend is older than cinema, actually. By the turn of the century—the nineteenth century—Lord Byron and company had already decided that the perfect metaphor for forbidden sex was, if not everything, then the Gothic vampire, and their Victorian successors kept paying it forward, with lesbian themes never far from their thoughts. The titular vampire in the novella Carmilla, with her breast-biting proclivities and homoerotic magnetism, predates the heteronormative, neck-biting Dracula by an impressive twenty-six years. Hammer’s Karnstein movies are Carmilla movies. So is The Blood Splattered Bride. So is Daughter of Dracula.
Daughters of Darkness gives the Carmilla tale a rest in favor of the legend of Countess Elizabeth Báthory, a sixteenth-century Hungarian noblewoman who’s believed to have murdered more than 600 people, most if not all of them virginal girls. You can read the historical record in a way that suggests that she was, or might have been, bisexual, but this is something that we can never know for sure, along with her actual body count. She died under house arrest in 1614.
Despite that she was Transylvanian, because what else, and that she reputedly bathed in the blood of her victims as a way to preserve her youth and beauty, nobody thought to connect her to vampires until Hammer got hold of her and took her story and dressed it up as a soap-opera fairy tale with total murders in the sad single digits and a certain eau de Dorian Gray, which they released as Countess Dracula (1971). And even then her character wasn’t a vampire, nor was she a lesbian, probably, except for an ambiguous scene or two,1 and the script referred to her by her married name of Nádasdy—historically accurate, but a dumb idea. No wonder they wanted the marquee to say Dracula. So Daughters of Darkness made vampire history in no less than three obscure ways. It initiated Countess Báthory into the ranks of nosferatu. It called her Báthory, like they do in encyclopedias. And it outed her not just as a daughter of darkness but also as a daughter of Sappho. She’s been a lesbian vampire pretty much ever since.
Still, I can think of better movies to go to. You might be wondering why I bothered with this one, and I might be asking myself the same question, if not for my hero, Joe Bob Briggs. Joe Bob Briggs was introducing this movie, live and in person, at the Nitehawk, in Williamsburg.
Horror fans of a certain age remember Joe Bob as the host of TNT’s MonsterVision for the last four years of its ten-year run. That’s how I come to my Joe Bob love. But horror fans of an even certainer age recall his prior television engagement, Joe Bob’s Drive-In Theater, which ran for a decade on TMC. I never saw Joe Bob’s Drive-In Theater, but people with knowledge of the matter assure me that his MonsterVision was just about the same show. He’d scrape the bottom of the network archives for movies unburdened by any concern for aesthetic, social, or moral value, like the movies that they used to show at drive-ins, and broadcast them on late-night television, since there weren’t any drive-ins to show them anymore. Most of his picks were horror movies that nobody had seen in years, if anyone had seen them ever. The Fury (1978). The Howling III (1987). Embrace of the Vampire (1995)—not strictly a lesbian vampire movie, but a vampire movie with lesbian action starring a barely legal-looking Alyssa Milano when she was still best remembered as a former child star.
You didn’t seek out Joe Bob. Not at first. You discovered him by channel surfing. It would be a Friday, maybe a Saturday night. You’d catch him holding court from his recliner, dressed like he was on his way to a rodeo, dropping stream-of-consciousness industry trivia or riffing on something tangential to the movie like a Texarkana version of Hunter S. Thompson and the great Ed Wood rolled into one. You couldn’t not watch. I tried. I couldn’t not. And you wouldn’t need to watch for long before he’d expound on a personal view, usually on the subject of “nekkid garbonzas,” that to call retrograde would be a charity and that hovered on the verge of being offensive without actually offending the kinds of people who are open to seeing these kinds of movies. It was funny, too, and improbably sophisticated, with an easy postmodern irony at its heart. He’d take potshots at his network and at current events. He’d openly question the intelligence of his audience. He was telling a joke that you were in on and all the non-pariahs were not. Let them have their mainstream cinema. Let it meet their need for conformity. Let it relentlessly cater to their tastes. We have our movies. These are for us. It was the smartest thing on cable, certainly at that hour. It was also the most subversive. Next time you were home on a Friday, maybe Saturday, you knew the show that you’d be tuned into.
Then you’d learn somehow, and you wouldn’t remember how, that before Joe Bob was a horror host, he was one of a small handful of genre movie critics who received column-inches in legitimate newspapers. You’d hunt down books like Joe Bob Goes to the Drive-In. You’d see the mind of the man unfold in a way that you didn’t get from the television, and you’d come to understand that Joe Bob is the drive-in in the way that the atman is the Brahman and that his columns are his process of revealing himself to himself. He goes way beyond gonzo. He’s the drive-in’s human avatar. He’s simultaneously the ideal audience member, a character on the screen in a movie, and a sort of high sheriff or philosopher king for connoisseurs of trashy cinema. He speaks in the language of drive-in movies. He embraces drive-in movie values. The concerns of these movies—blood, breasts, and beasts—are precisely the concerns of Joe Bob Briggs and the only concerns of Joe Bob Briggs, and these criteria, and only these, are the ones by which he assesses a movie. He dutifully tallies the quantities of each and adds them to his drive-in totals, alongside the number of dead bodies in the film, whether heads roll (or limbs, or extremities), the notable types of fu in evidence (chainsaw fu, to name a common example), and other statistics of a similar sort, plus acting nominations for the kinds of performances that disqualify you with Academy voters. He found his home, or maybe his level, on late-night cable television. But his writing, especially from before he got famous, belongs to the drive-in as Lester Bangs’ belongs to rock. Read some Bangs and some Briggs back to back sometime and tell me that you don’t see the resemblance. The same manic energy. The same manic love.
I’d lost track of Joe Bob in the aughts, after MonsterVision had gone the way of the drive-in, so to pick back up with him twenty years later was a welcome proposition, unanticipated but not surprising. This new golden age of horror is reactivating all the dormant weirdos and drawing them to all the old gathering places like the rebuilt tower of Barad-dûr. First I heard that he was coming to Shudder, the really not half-bad horror streaming service. I made a mental note not to cancel my subscription. Then I heard that he hosts the odd screening in Yonkers from my movie pal Jon, who’d been to one. Apparently Joe Bob is still working it hard. He unearths some oddity that was better off buried, somehow secures the projection rights, makes some remarks, and does the drive-in totals. The film rolls. He stays and watches, and then he parks in the lobby and chats up his fans. That’s all well and good, I thought, but in no case would I ever be caught dead in Yonkers, and at least I’d have Shudder, and so on and so forth.
But a few days later, by what I’m going to call luck, when I was checking the schedule at the Nitehawk, just to see what movies were playing in the off chance that I’d find one that would be good to take a girl to, it said, right there, in front of my eyes:
Daughters of Darkness (Introduction by Joe Bob Briggs; presented by Shudder)
Sure, it was Williamsburg, but at least it wasn’t Yonkers, and what girl wouldn’t want to meet a celebrity? I’d nabbed a couple tickets before thinking it through. The celebrity was going to be Joe Bob Briggs, and he was going to be talking about Daughters of Darkness, and a second-wave lesbian vampire movie introduced by a guy who counts breasts for a living wasn’t the best idea I’d ever had for a date. But maybe I could still put the ticket to use. I could invite a horror fan. A horror fan would get it (I hoped) and wouldn’t have me brought up on charges. Maybe someone who wants to throw a B-movie theme wedding, since the movie is sort of about a honeymoon. That narrowed it down to Anusree. She’s a fellow traveler. And the only person I know who meets both criteria. And from what I knew of her tastes at the time, Daughters of Darkness seemed like a good fit, maybe a little too bloody in places, but nothing that I couldn’t talk my way out of. So I told her that it was bloody and that it featured graphic sex. She was undeterred. No restraining order surfaced. I found out later that her favorite film is Carrie (1976) and that she likes to go to slashers to watch teenagers suffer. And that when you tell her that a movie is bloody, it better be bloody, or you’ll never hear the end of it.
Jon had bought a ticket also, independently of us and synchronistically, and, without realizing that I’d already booked mine, pinged me to say that there were still a couple seats left. I told him that I’d be there and that Anusree was joining, and the three of us made plans to meet at the show, in the lobby, above Lo-Res, the Nitehawk house bar. The waiting area is smaller than you’d expect and an easy place for finding your friends in. We saw Jon as soon as we came up the stairs. The entire cinema fits on the second floor, and it utilizes its limited real estate well, unlike, say, the Village East, with its subterranean maze-like sprawl. They have ticketing machines and a full-service bar, separate from Lo-Res, with a countertop and everything, in the approximate square footage of a picnic table. They’re a triplex—a three-screener—but there’s only one line, and each show queues up one at a time. They weren’t yet seating for Daughters of Darkness, but the line was forming, and we hopped right on. We had barely the chance to say hi to each other before the doors opened and they let us in.
There’s a kitchen on premises, maybe the same one as Lo-Res. I can’t picture where else they might have stuffed it. But you can order from the menu that you find at your seat, and your server takes care of you all through the show. We got the tater tots with queso and scallions based on Jon’s recommendation. The man did us right and a very great good. It turns out that these are the snack of choice for Nitehawk moviegoers in the know. Mention the Nitehawk to a veteran, and expect to hear something about the tater tots. It’s a Nitehawk thing specifically. The Alamo in Brooklyn steers well clear.
At seven thirty sharp, the lights went down, some words were said, and Joe Bob appeared. He was, of course, nine feet tall. He was also twenty years older than I’d seen him last and sporting a thinning-hair short-back-and-sides cut. His bolo tie was on, totem-like. No cowboy hat, though. And he was wearing glasses. And reading from papers. At a lectern. And rushing his delivery. Was he—he was nervous. Joe Bob was nervous. And looking suspiciously like the long-lost John Bloom, urbane intellectual, the investigative reporter from the Dallas Times Herald who created the persona of Joe Bob Briggs as a way to review verboten movies without besmirching his own good name. His creation ran amok a time or two, just like it would in a drive-in movie, and probably cost him his chance at a Pulitzer. But it also got him started on late-night cable. Maybe Joe Bob is trapped there like a genie in a lamp, and John can’t channel him unless a camera is rolling. Or maybe Joe Bob has been exorcised, and John in a bolo tie covers for him and handles all his personal appearances. I’ll leave that for his shrink to sort out. But when Joe Bob or John or whoever it was ran the drive-in totals for Daughters of Darkness, there in front of the old gods and everyone, I had a sort of religious experience, with the chill down the spine that one gets from such things. Five dead bodies. Thirteen breasts. One beach burial. Fruit-bowl fu.
The lesbian vampires from this cycle of films all share the same modus operandi. They use the power of their lesbian gaze to transform unsatisfied, nominally hetero women into sex partners and blood donors and eventual slave-vampires with an appetite for feeding on their former male lovers. How successful they are depends on the movie. Sometimes the woman goes back to her life in the infantilizing care of the patriarchy, like Mina Harker does in the novel Dracula. Sometimes the patriarchy fights back hard and achieves a decisive, Van Helsing-style victory against this dangerous threat to gender-normative behavior. And sometimes lesbian vampirism prevails. Which it is in this movie, I’m not going to tell you. But the vampire bait in Daughters of Darkness is lovely ingénue Valerie (Danielle Ouimet), recently married to Stefan Chilton (John Karlen), as recently married as three hours ago. They make an exceedingly handsome couple. Stefan professes not to love his bride, which he doesn’t, since he only has eyes for himself. Valerie tells Stefan that she doesn’t love him, either, but this is just her playing along. She believes that she does. She says as much. And she wants very much for him to love her. She gives him the shoulder or throws tantrums in public when he makes it clear that he doesn’t love anyone. But Valerie is the sort to fall in love, and fall out of it, too, with the same effortlessness. And she knows nothing about him, so there’s nothing for her to love, except for how handsome of a couple they make. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything important if I tell you that she doesn’t love Stefan at all, nor does she ever at any point in the film.
They’re traveling by train from Switzerland, where they married, to get to a port in Belgium, I guess, to connect with a mail boat to take them to England, all to pay a visit to the Chilton estate. Stefan is a British aristocrat (educated in America to explain his accent), and Valerie, of the commons, is anxious about his family. It’s all she talks about when they aren’t having sex. She keeps pressuring him to telephone his mother, or the person who Stefan has told her is his mother, whom he calls the Lady Chilton, but who is also the Lord Chilton in drag, as played by Fons Rademakers in a single scene. Stefan is in no hurry to explain any of this, so he’s pleased when the train runs off its tracks and strands them near the city of Ostend, a vacation resort on the Belgian coast.
The hotel where they’re staying is so off-season that they’re sharing the place with only four other souls, two of whom are no longer living and beyond the reach of the Christian savior. The first such creature is the countess herself (Delphine Seyrig), “a fascinating woman,” in Valerie’s words. Her hobbies include knitting and changing her outfits. Seyrig carries her from room to room with an air of decadent, icy nobility that might be from breeding or that might be from death. You get the impression that something is hiding behind her. From the moment that she first sees Valerie, she begins to weave her spiderweb (which is why we see her knitting, I think), first to make the newlyweds’ acquaintance, and then to drive a wedge between them by openly toying with a willing Stefan and bringing him to climax, more or less, in the lounge. It goes without saying that she has no interest in him except as a food source and as a knot of weak male ego to exploit.
The second such creature is sub-vampire Ilona (Andrea Rau), the countess’s secretary, with duties like minding the luggage and sulking and a little peeping through windows in the nude on the side. If Rau’s performance is wooden, and it is, part of that is her playing her character. Ilona is under the countess’s spell, although maybe not absolutely so. She has a certain freedom to act on her own. And she expresses a personal dislike for Valerie out of a kind of survival instinct, a sense that she’s about to be replaced. Not that the countess considers her opinions. But at least she’s able to have them.
Among the conventionally mortal, along with Stefan and Valerie, we have the concierge Pierre (Paul Esser), who seems to be running the hotel by himself, but since the place is as vacant as the Overlook at winter minus the Torrences and the Grady family, he doesn’t have much to do in the movie besides recognize the countess from when he was a boy and relay this information to every other character. There’s also a retired policeman (Georges Jamin), something of a Flemish Van Helsing. He’s keeping the countess under informal surveillance while investigating a string of murders. If you’re thinking bloodless corpses, you’re on the right track. And he knows a thing or two about vampire stories. But if you’re looking for a battle between two equal adversaries, you might want to try a different movie.2 The countess drives a Bristol. He rides a bike.
So if you take the lesbian vampire formula and plug in the values for Daughters of Darkness, you have Valerie, who just wants to be loved. You have the countess, who sets her sights on Valerie and will try, one, to turn her into a lesbian and, two, to turn her into a vampire. And then you have Stefan, or, in other words, drinks. He almost makes it too easy for the countess. It’s not just that he considers his wedding vows to be optional. He was upfront with Valerie about that much at least. But he’s also a husband who leads his wife on and lies to her face when he finds it convenient and shuts a woman up by lighting her cigarette and breaks out the belt when he’s feeling insecure and needs to prove that he’s a man. He orders Valerie to do as he says, but that’s not how the countess rolls. She doesn’t batter down doors. She slithers under them. She’s Lucifer the tempter, not the tyrant. Or the deceiver.
Speaking of tyrants, Harry Kümel directs. He does a competent job making a non-Hammer Hammer film by way of arthouse proto-porno chic. (It’s the Hammer look, essentially, but with full-frontal nudity, more sex than violence, and more violence than vampirism.) In lieu of having the screen run red, Kümel has it fade to red, which was probably the better option for his budget, but it didn’t do his box office returns any favors. There is this concept called the audience, and they might expect to see blood in a vampire movie. Most of the classic vampire elements—the coffin, the deathlike trance by day—are hinted at but never shown, so that the movie relies on your knowledge of cinema to fill in the gaps in the iconography. That’s how they do it in Art. It’s also inconsistent with its vampire rules, which is how they do it in Garbage. The countess and Ilona have different reactions to traditional anti-vampire measures. And it looks like ordinary steel can hurt them, or at least some of them, or maybe just one of them. Maybe each vampire’s state is different? Maybe the countess is better at hiding it? I’m more inclined to blame sloppy writing. Although the script resurrects a piece of the folklore that’s been all but forgotten since Bela Lugosi: the powerlessness of a vampire to cross running water. I don’t want to spoil how the movie makes use of it, only that it’s an act of genius and that Hammer ripped it off for Dracula A. D. 1972 (1972).
I also appreciate the movie’s editing philosophy. Every scene has a narrative purpose, which it carries out with an economy of action. None of that Jess Franco nonsense. The cut might have even gone too far in places. We could have used some more vampirism, as I’ve already said. And the retired policeman would have been more of a threat if he’d made it into just a couple more scenes. Like one where we see him investigating a murder. An active-duty officer could have laughed in his face when he floated his theory that a vampire did it. And maybe we could have seen him poring over the evidence and singling out one photo in particular. The countess is in it, but there’s something about her, and then he realizes that she isn’t casting a reflection. I suspect that these scenes didn’t make it into the movie because they never made it into the script. But at least the running time doesn’t drag. Right about when you’ve had enough, the movie does you the courtesy of ending.
John Bloom as Joe Bob was going to be in Lo-Res, but we wordlessly decided as a group not to bother. One should never hang out with one’s heroes. Especially when they’re Joe Bob Briggs.
I took a poll as we were leaving.
“Didn’t love it,” Jon said. That’s Jon-speak for he hated it.
“It was unsatisfying,” Anusree said. “For one thing, it wasn’t bloody at all.” Fair if you like your blood by the bucket. How was I supposed to know about that? “And it wasn’t believable as a vampire movie. The only one with a thirst was Stefan.”
1. Apart from the countess’s maybe-winks in that direction, a prostitute in Countess Dracula is willing to take a woman as a client after getting paid double and in advance.
2. I suggest Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992).