Horror Films 101: Harry Kümel’s “Daughters of Darkness” (1971)

Delphine Seyrig channels Marlene Dietrich in her portrayal of the infamous Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Báthory.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you are already familiar with my admiration — one might even say, obsession — for European horror films from the 1960’s and 70’s. What these films often lacked in budget, they more than made up for with stunning visuals and style. Of course, when you have a 1000+ years of art and culture sitting at your doorstep, it’s difficult not to look fabulous. Such is the case for Harry Kümel’s highly stylized erotic vampire film Daughters of Darkness (1971). From the architecture of the grand hotel on the Belgian seafront, to the shimmering sequins of Delphine Seyrig’s evening gown and the blonde waves of her 1930’s bob hairstyle, everything and everyone looks beautiful.

Author David Chute wrote an elegant summary of Daughters of Darkness for the recent Blu-Ray release of the Kümel classic which accurately captures the mood of the film:

Art-movie goddess Delphine Seyrig (Last Year at Marienbad) slinks through the plush Eurotrash settings as the deathless Elizabeth Bathory, Vampire Countess, in Harry Kümel’s minor Dutch classic of lesbian erotic-gothic. Blood mingles with water during the languorous shower scenes. Set at an upper-crust seaside resort, the 1971 film recounts Bathory’s plot to replace her current consort (Andrea Rau) with a fresher specimen, an abused newlywed whose brutal young husband is an inconvenience waiting to be eliminated. Although both the bi-sex and the neck-biting violence are tame by today’s standards, the film has a graceful, gliding sense of pace that gets under your skin; something unspeakably kinky always seems to be just about to happen. It never quite does, but the mood lingers. See it with someone you love–or would like to. –David Chute

Stefan (John Karlen) gets all hot and bothered as he and Elizabeth recount the many tortures inflicted upon the victims of the bloodthirsty Countess Báthory.

The phrase “…something unspeakably kinky always seems to be just about to happen…” instantly leapt out at me when I first read Chute’s summary, as this echoes my own experience with the film. If David Lynch had been making Eurotrash vampire films in the 1970’s, he’d probably make a film much like this one. From our first glimpse of the Countess, as she glides out from the backseat of her Bentley and up to the desk of the hotel concierge, there is an unmistakable atmosphere of kink. The camera tightly focuses on the gleaming patent leather of her high black boots as she steps from the car, an image that says fetish more than it does vampire. It is quickly apparent that the relationship between Elizabeth and her “secretary” Ilona has little to do with typing memos, and the scene in which Ilona crouches obediently at Elizabeth’s feet clearly establishes their dominant/submissive lifestyle arrangement. Of course, a bisexual female vampire with a taste for BDSM isn’t an entirely uncommon entity in the realms of horror fiction. The true wild card in Kümel’s film lies in the character of Stefan, the secretive husband prone to fits of violent rage. His rather prurient interest in sexual sadism becomes apparent when he recounts the legend of the bloodthirsty Countess Báthory, writhing with erotic pleasure as he describes the tortures inflicted upon her victims. Later in the film, he savagely beats his wife Valerie with his belt. And then there’s the whole matter of his “mother,” whom he’s mysteriously reluctant to introduce to his new bride. The scene below, where Stefan gives his ol’ Mum a call, is gloriously creepy:

My favourite moment of that scene is when the butler kneels down before Mother, and “Mother” reaches out to pet his bald head in the way one would a family dog. The butler reacts, but only mildly, before he walks away in silence. Kink abounds, but its only ever hinted at.

As the film nears its finale, the body count predictably rises. Ilona slips in the shower and falls upon a straight razor. The abusive Stefan gets his final comeuppance by way of a glass fruit bowl. Yes, fruit bowl. The Countess herself meets her end impaled on an unfortunately located tree branch as she is pitched from her crashing car. The sole survivor Valerie keeps the Báthory legend alive by donning Elizabeth’s fetching black PVC cape — complete with bat-wing trim and campy-vamp high collar — and seductively sidling up to a young couple.

The Rape-Revenge Girl, part deux.

Baise-moi, si vous plaît.

The sex-club massacre scene from "Baise-moi" (2000). In English, the film's title would be correctly translated as "Fuck me", and not "Rape me" under which it was originally released in North America.

When the French film Baise-moi was released in 2000, it garnered a great deal of media attention for its highly graphic violence and depictions of unsimulated sex. The film was banned in Ontario, initially because it was deemed too pornographic. The producers asked for it to be re-rated with a pornographic rating, only for it to be banned because there was too much violence for a pornographic film. It was finally passed with an “18A license” after — one assumes — some strategic edits being made. I caught up with the film on DVD that year, and have recently rewatched it online — you can find most of the film on Youtube, but hurry as it’s likely to be removed due to its content and copyright infringement. I came away from my recent viewing with these two impressions: firstly, that it is a far better film than I remember, and second, that I still don’t know what all the hullabaloo was about.

Here’s a quick synopsis: the main characters Nadine (Karen Bach) and Manu (Raffaëla Anderson) are women who live on the precarious fringe of a very disenfranchised lower-class in contemporary France. Nadine is a part-time prostitute involved with some very shady individuals, while the perpetually unemployed Manu spends much of her time trying to get stoned. When Manu is gang raped by a group of thugs, her brother — with whom she has a strangely complex and conflicted relationship — accuses her of “enjoying” the rape and calls her a “slut.” A physical struggle ensues, during which Manu grabs her brother’s handgun and shoots him dead. Meanwhile, Nadine has a violent scuffle with her female roommate that ends with her friend’s demise. So, a bad day for all parties involved. The women meet up at a railway station by pure coincidence, and the two decide to “go on the lamb” from the police that will soon pursue them. And thus famously begins their violent, drug-addled, pornographic and completely nihilistic crime spree.

Nadine pays homage to Travis Bickle's famous "Are you talking to me?" scene from Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver." No, seriously. Compare both scenes.

In my previous post on The Rape-Revenge Girl I discussed Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave (1978) and how that film ultimately failed as a satisfying Rape-Revenge film. Where Zarchi’s film falters and, conversely, Baise-moi succeeds is in the depiction of rape. The protracted and rather gratuitous rape scenes in I Spit On Your Grave offer up much screaming, nakedness, and salacious close-ups of Jennifer Hill’s anguished face and bloodied body. While the audience understands that bloody vengeance will come before the credits roll, it’s not until after we all get a good, long look at Jennifer’s breasts. The whole deal feels exploitative. While the rape scene in Baise-moi is undeniably graphic — as it involves actual penetration — the filmmakers Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi simultaneously reject the sadism inherent in a rape scene. Much to the dismay of one of her rapists, Manu stares ahead in a detached manner during her attack. She has recognized that although she’s powerless to prevent the assault, she can assert power through her refusal to “play” the role of the victim. The fact that her lack of response clearly annoys her rapist underscores the politics that inform the scene: that rape is about power, not sex.

Once Nadine and Manu are on the road, the film becomes a sort of X-rated buddy-flick. The sex is graphic, true, but no more so than anything you’ve seen in a standard, mainstream pornographic film. Much like films of that ilk, it’s also completely mechanical and nonerotic. The violence of the main characters is sudden, impulsive and seemingly fueled by a rage against society as a whole, which is partly the reason it all works so well. The scene of the bloody massacre that takes place within a sex club is positively operatic in its excessive violence. For no other reason, you should watch this film for that scene.

OK, I believe I’ve finished with my “female tropes in horror films” series of posts. Next up, I’ll write about the latest release from Pixar. No, not really.

Deviance, gender and the ‘aberrant female’ in horror, part IV.

The Rape-Revenge Girl.

Jennifer (Camille Keaton) exacts revenge on one of her rapists in ‘I Spit On Your Grave’ (1978).

Horror fiction tends to narrowly focus on two main themes: sex and death. (In fact, an argument can be made that most art is preoccupied with these two topics). A corollary subject that often arises from this thematic pairing is the violent cruelty of mankind that ultimately leads to sex and/or death. The writings of the Marquis de Sade and films of both Pasolini and Hanneke are almost entirely devoted to the examination of power dynamics and the innate viciousness of humanity. The reader/audience is also strongly implicated as willing participants in this parade of cruelty served up for our (presumably) voyeuristic consumption.

The Rape-Revenge scenario is the perfect encapsulation of this sex + death equation: a young, beautiful woman is sexually and physically brutalized, but survives to exact bloody vengeance upon her tormentor/s. This scenario is one that is strongly favoured by the various subgenres of exploitation cinema because its, well, basically lurid and exploitative. The most famous (or infamous, depending on your point-of-view) of the Rape-Revenge subgenre is Meir Zarchi’s Day of the Woman (1978), better known by its re-release title, I Spit on Your Grave. Now, let’s place this film in it’s proper context. Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave is a base, low-budget, and poorly acted film. It’s pure exploitation cinema, and a far cry from the critically-lauded work of Sade, Pasolini and Hanneke. That being said, it has been the subject of a great deal of feminist critical discourse since its release, with academics such as Carol Clover and Julie Bindel championing its “feminist” viewpoint.

The plot is threadbare. Jennifer Hills, an aspiring writer from “the big city”, seeks solitude in a rental cottage so that she may focus on her craft. The local country bumpkins have different plans for Ms. Hills, however, for no apparent reason other than the fact that she’s young, pretty and unaccompanied. They systematically terrorize, gang rape, and then murder their victim. Or so they believe. Jennifer survives her attack, and returns for revenge. One by one, her former tormentors are dispatched in ever increasingly gruesome ways and we, the audience, cheer her on through this exercise in catharsis.

Dude, rape victims don’t generally seduce their rapists into bathtubs after the attack. Darwinism claims yet another deserved victim.

I had two major misgivings with Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave. I’ll list them in point form.

1. One is forced to sit through a protracted series of rapes before we arrive at the satisfaction of revenge. This is the ‘Faustian bargain’ to which we females tacitly agree when viewing such films: howls of naked protest from the heroine in Act One, to be followed by bloody vengeance. The quotient of rape-to-revenge in Zarchi’s film is too much rape, not enough revenge. At least, the deaths of Jennifer’s rapists were not violent and/or gory enough for my — admittedly, gruesome — taste. The only death scene that worked for me was the castration-in-the-bathtub scene. Gallons of fake blood, off-screen howls and much left to the imagination of the viewer make this scene an effective one.

2. The rapists are portrayed as complete imbeciles, with one of them a mildly retarded, Gomer Pyle-like character. Did Zarchi intend this as a further insult-to-injury for poor Jennifer Hills? That an independent, educated woman like her could be bested by this group of inbreds? The convincing performance of Camille Keaton in the infamous ‘sodomy scene’ is completely undercut by the spastic gyrations of her attacker. What the hell is the actor doing back there? Was he directed to look that ridiculous? Even during a scene as horrendous as this, I could not suppress my laughter.

Where is the ‘deviance’ and the ‘aberrant female’ in all this, you ask? Carol Clover wrote in the third chapter of her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws that she can “appreciate, however grudgingly, the way in which [the movie’s] brutal simplicity exposes a mainspring of popular culture.” Women are typically cast as victims in exploitation films, and their suffering has become a form of sadistic entertainment. Zarchi’s film attempts to address this issue. Rather than rely on the sporadic justice of the judiciary system, Jennifer Hills takes matters into her own hands. She embodies the rage we feel against the cruel reality of rape, and we sit through her violation in order to experience the vicarious thrill of revenge without ever getting our hands bloodied.

While Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave doesn’t entirely work for me as a satisfying Rape-Revenge film, my next post will focus on a film in this genre that does work: the equally controversial French film Baise-moi (2000).

Next post–>

Walerian Borowczyk’s “La bête” (‘The Beast’)

Horror at the discovery of the slaughtered lamb and bear-like Beast in the surrealistic dream sequence.

I wanted to revisit a film I’d mentioned in the previous post on Walerian Borowczyk. This blog entry introduced the work of Polish filmmaker Borowczyk and offered a brief analysis of his softcore films created in the mid-1970s. His most notorious and controversial film La bête (‘The Beast’, 1975) was released shortly after Contes immoraux (‘Immoral Tales’, 1974) and was, in fact, an expansion of a sequence originally shot for the earlier anthology. This sequence consisted of a rather cheeky retelling of the Beauty & The Beast fairytale as only Borowczyk’s ribald imagination could envision. An aristocratic woman in a powdered wig is roused from her harpsichord by the sudden disappearance of a lamb outside the window of her country manor. She ventures into the nearby forest in search of the lamb, only to discover its carcass being gnawed on by an enormous, bear-like creature. Presumably fearing for her life, the woman screams and runs through the forest in a frenzied manner that quite effectively removes all of her clothing save for her corset and stockings. In close pursuit, the Beast appears visibly aroused by the semi-nude woman, as evidenced by the absurdly large phallus it sports. The woman is eventually captured by the creature, who performs oral sex on her whilst she hangs from a tree branch in a futile attempt at escape. Her wild protestations soon vanish and she surrenders to the erotic attentions of the Beast in one of cinema’s most bizarre, and hilarious, sex scenes.

Sweet, sweet loving between Beauty and her Beast. Walt Disney, this ain’t.

If the text on the DVD package is accurate, La bête was banned for the past 25 years in the UK on the grounds of its depictions of bestiality. If true, this would strongly suggest that the British censors possessed neither imagination nor a sense of humour. The sex depicted in this sequence lacks any sense of realism and is clearly meant as a darkly comedic farce of the romantic relationship typically found in the traditional Beauty & the Beast fairytale. Borowczyk’s penchant for the grotesque also shapes the scene. A man in a bear suit touting an enormous prosthetic penis is grotesque, ridiculous and not-so-vaguely perverted, but it’s certainly not bestiality.

Now that La bête is available on DVD, my advice to the British censors is to slip a copy into the player, decant the wine, plant themselves on the couch and enjoy this sexy and thoroughly absurd film. Heck, I’m willing to bet that they were doing this in secret, all along.

Walerian Borowczyk’s “Contes immoraux”: The bloodthirsty Countess meets European softcore cinema.

A bevy of naked beauties in Walerian Borowczyk's "Contes immoraux" (1974).

Walerian Borowczyk (1923-2006) was a Polish filmmaker who was, in the early years of his career, the creator of astounding stop-motion animations. Nightmarish and surreal in nature, animated short films such as Renaissance (1963) and Jeux des anges (1964) brought Borowczyk critical acclaim in the rarefied world of avant-garde filmmaking. Commercial success, however, eluded him until his venture into live-action cinema with his infamous art-house-meets-softcore films of the 1970’s. A consummate provocateur, Borowczyk challenged his audience with Contes immoraux (‘Immoral Tales’, 1974) and La bête (‘The Beast’, 1975) — films which some critics derided as “contentless pornography” due to their wholesale preoccupation with nudity and sexuality. While the charge of “pornography” is not entirely unwarranted, I would maintain that Borowczyk’s meticulously-detailed set design, careful art direction and signature surreal style elevate films such as Contes immoraux from mere “sexploitation” to softcore cinema with considerable artistic merit.

Now, don’t get me wrong — from a straightforward “is this movie good or not?” perspective, Borowczyk’s Contes immoraux is not an especially good film. What dialogue there is — and there’s mercifully little — is completely inane. The action is glacially slow, due in part to a camera that lingers incessantly over the bushy nether regions of naked girls. It is ironic, then, that as a purely softcore film Contes immoraux also falters. By the standards of contemporary pornography, Borowczyk’s film is rather too tame to satisfy current erotic appetites. It’s all breasts, bums and bush, and precious little sex. Thus, we are left with a paradoxical film that is neither artful enough for the art-house, nor raunchy enough to function as pornography.

Film still from "Contes immoraux". Paloma Picasso stars as Erzsébet Báthory, the notorious 15th-century Hungarian countess who allegedly bathed in the blood of young women as a means to preserve her youthful appearance.

What the films of Borowczyk do possess, however, are stunning visuals that perfectly synthesize elements of the erotic with the grotesque. Given his early animations, which were bizarre and nightmarish, it is not at all surprising that Borowczyk would continue his exploration of the grotesque in later work like Contes immoraux and La bête. A primary example of this is the Erzsébet Báthory segment of Contes immoraux, the third and most accomplished segment of his four-part erotic anthology. Set in 1610, this segment stars Paloma Picasso (the daughter of Pablo) in the role of Countess Elizabeth Báthory, the notorious 15th-century Hungarian noblewoman legendary for her cruelty and sadism. Amongst her many reputed atrocities were the infamous ‘bloodbaths’, in which the Countess would soak in her victim’s blood in order to retain her youth and beauty. Borowczyk downplays the savagery of the Báthory legend, and instead offers up a positively demure Countess. The segment opens with the round-up of the nearby village girls by the Countess’s henchmen. The next several minutes are dedicated to extended scenes of the girls bathing and generally frolicking in the shower stalls of the Báthory castle. There’s virtually no dialogue, focusing all of our attention on the sumptuous colour palette and beautifully-composed camera shots. After the frivolity of the showers, the naked girls are lead en masse into a large bedchamber. Elizabeth Báthory reappears, wearing a gossamer white dressing-gown, adorned with lace and pearls. The crowd of girls approach the Countess and stroke her pearl-encrusted gown admiringly. Rapidly, however, the scene transforms from sultry to savage, as the girls begin to violently tear at the dress, ripping it to shreds. They fight amongst each other over the pearls that fall, and the once sexy scene of nubile young girls turns into a bloody, animal rampage.

The 'bloodbath' of the Countess.

The scene quickly cuts to a close-up of the bloodbath of the Countess. The white limbs of Paloma Picasso fill the screen as she luxuriates in her bath, twisting back and forth in the frothy red. The heightened aestheticism, with the rich, vibrant red blood against white skin, cleverly undercuts the grotesque/horror aspects of the ‘bloodbath’ and the mass-murder that occurred (off-screen) in the previous scene.

The films of Walerian Borowczyk are not widely available, but cinephiles and film geeks can likely find these in the better “alternative” video stores or at midnight screenings in rep cinemas.