Color, 1971, 100 mins.
Directed by Harry Kümel
Starring Delphine Seyrig, John Karlen, Daniele Ouimet, Andrea Rau
Blue Underground (UHD, Blu-Ray & DVD) (US R0 4K/HD/NTSC), Optimum (UK R2 PAL), Umbrella (Australia R4 PAL) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9), Anchor Bay (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.66:1)
Shortly after an impromptu wedding, Stefan (Dark Shadows' Karlen) and Valerie (Canadian softcore star Ouimet) wind up at an off-season, seaside resort where they meet another couple, the alluring but world-weary Elizabeth (Last Year at Marienbad's Seyrig) and her luscious companion, Ilona (German exploitation favorite Rau). Soon Elizabeth sets her sights on seducing Valerie away from her abusive husband, whose fear of introducing her to his rich mother covers some perverse skeletons in his closet. As the psychosexual mind games reach a fever pitch, the blood begins to spill...
The most elegant and deliciously witty entry in the unkillable string of lesbian vampire sagas that became a frequent sight in the early '70s (Hammer's Karnstein trilogy, Vampyres, etc.), this Belgian art house favorite dodges most of the horror and erotic conventions while delivering a sumptuous feast that still enchants viewers today. Surrealist director Harry Kümel (Malpertuis), a contemporary of European émigrés like Von Sternberg, conjured up this dreamlike rumination on the story of real-life blood fetishist Elizabeth Bathory, transposed with plot twists aplenty to modern-day seaside Belgium with a potent fairy tale atmosphere.
Originally chopped down by over 10 minutes and severely re-edited (both visually and musically) for many English territories, Daughters of Darkness was restored to its original European running time around the time laserdiscs were giving way to the advent of DVD and earned an early uncut U.K. VHS release. Aside from a great deal of extra nudity, this print also allows the film adequate time to weave its spell, with Kümel's languorous fades to red at the end of many scenes finally reinstated. The transfer looked adequate for the time but became quickly dated, with Blue Underground's first issue on DVD simply bumping the old transfer to 16:9 with deeply unsatisfying results.
Fortunately the third time was the charm, DVD-wise, as Blue Underground's much-needed 2006 upgrade boasts a considerably sharper, cleaner presentation, albeit with what appears to be some brightness and contrast boosting that's tolerable given the vibrant colors on display. Some of the darker scenes (especially the opening shots on the train) are still murky due to the heavy blue filter and diffusion effects, which never fared well in SD. The mono audio sounds fine (with the original English dialogue surprisingly free of any awkward dubbing), and François de Roubaix's delirious score sings no matter how you hear it. This edition carries over the extras from the previous laserdisc and DVD editions, such as an engaging commentary track with Karlen and writer David Del Valle (obviously the most Americanized supplement of the bunch and still very informative, as well as surprisingly candid) and a second, newer commentary with Kümel (who talks about his career, the origins of the film, and his visual techniques applied to create this oddball work of art). Also carried over are the great U.S. theatrical trailer, radio spots, a poster/still gallery, and a fine German-language video interview with Rau, "Daughter of Darkness" (7m59s), in which she discusses the making of the film (including her memorable nude scenes) and her career before and after. New to this set are two more featurettes, the fun "Locations of Darkness" (21m37s) with Kümel and co-writer/producer Pierre Drouot revisiting the shooting locations at the Astoria Hotel in Brussells and Hotel des Thermes in Ostende, and "Playing the Interview" (15m29s), a new chat with the still-lovely and charming Ouimet who talks about her big breaks in Canada, her affinity for "weird cinema," and her awed impressions of Seyrig. The DVD is available as a single disc or a double-disc version with another lesbian vampire cult favorite, the much more brutal and Catholic-themed The Blood Spattered Bride. It's identical to the earlier Anchor Bay release in terms of transfer, trailer, and menus.
Nearly five years later, Blue Underground released the film in a Blu-ray edition that looks significantly different from their prior HD upgrade. In the interim, versions in England and Australia came out, and the Blu-ray looks closest to the Optimum UK release. The film has a more overcast, dusky look with more naturalistic colors, which contrasts with the pumped-up appearance of the previous American transfers. Detail on the Blu-ray is obviously much sharper than any DVD option (you can even spot some complexion problems on the actors that were never visible before), and while that opening train scene is still pretty problematic as always, the rest is very satisfying and film-like. The Blu-ray also offered the first time for English-speaking viewers to enjoy the French-language track, which also contains Seyrig's original voice and makes for a nice variation if you want to see how the film played in its native country. (Don't worry, the English track is still the default and has to be considered the primary language for the film.) Optional English subtitles are provided for both the English track and a translation of the French track, which makes for a few nice variations including some additional little details about Ouimet's background. Optional Spanish and French subtitles are also available. The Blood Spattered Bride is included as well on the Blu-ray, albeit in standard def only. All of the previous extras are carried over as well, too, except for the gallery (as to be expected given BU's past releases).
In 2020, Blue Underground paid another visit to this beguiling classic with an expanded three-disc edition featuring a 4K UHD, an upgraded Blu-ray, and a soundtrack CD, housed in a flashy lenticular slipcase. Ported over on both the UHD and Blu-ray are both commentaries, the three featurettes, and radio spots; in addition to the usual U.S. trailer, you also get a very different European trailer (as Promise of Red Lips) and a flat-out amazing French trailer (with optional English subs) that must have caused heart palpitations back in '71. In a nice gesture, you also get the American main title sequence (unseen since the VHS release back in the '80s) with torch song-style vocals added over that familiar melody ("Winnnngs, winnngs!"). A massive 123-image gallery features a wide array of international poster art, stills, lobby cards, production photos, video sleeves, and other goodies including Kümel-related snapshots. The biggest new extra here is a third audio commentary with Devil's Advocates: Daughters of Darkness author Kat Ellinger (who also, appropriately enough, comprises one half of the Daughters of Darkness podcast), so as you'd expect, she's chock full of info about the film thanks to multiple interviews conducted with the participants and lord knows how many viewings. She really goes to town here with a packed track that covers pretty much every aspect of the film including its cast, director, and role within the larger context of European horror and surrealist filmmaking along with thoughts on the conventions of vampire cinema and the Bathory mythos.
That leaves the big question: how does it look? Well, brace yourselves. Transfered for the first time from the original camera negative with color timing supervised by the director himself, it's a real visual stunner right from the outset with that once murky train opening now looking gorgeous with layers of deep blue and violet lighting that were entirely suppressed in past transfers. Detail looks gorgeous throughout, and particularly with the advantage of Dolby Vision HDR on the UHD, the color range here is really something to behold with something striking going on in every shot. Prepare to play this one a lot for sheer eye candy value alone. In addition to the DTS-HD MA English and French mono tracks with their respective English subtitle tracks (plus French and Spanish subtitles), you also get an English 5.1 and Dolby Atmos options; the latter is particularly entertaining, tastefully spreading the music out to the front and rear channels with some nice ambient spread above at several key junctures. Particularly amusing are the occasional squawking sounds of seagulls, which waft around the various speakers along with the sounds of crashing waves. Quite nice, and while it's great to have the original mono mix as the most legitimate option, the Atmos track is quite a kick to hear and manages to make the film even more engrossing than it already is.
Blue Underground (2020 Blu-ray)
Blue Underground) (2011 Blu-ray)
Updated review on October 5, 2020.