For many years, Harry Kümel's Daughters Of Darkness played catch-me-if-you-can with a small, expectant audience who longed to witness the full, uncut version. Shorn of approximately 12 minutes of footage, this slow-burning tale of a vampire finally became available in all its original glory via a series of releases on VHS, Laserdisc and DVD. Now, Blue Underground have released a splendid special edition DVD which makes all previous versions redundant, though one aspect of this package proves a tad disappointing.
Kumel's journey into darkness begins abroad The Orient Express where newly weds Stefan (John Karlen) and Valerie (Danielle Ouimet) encounter their first obstacle in maried life; an argument over advising Stefan's 'mother' of their tryst: later on, his telephone call provides an unsavoury revelation regarding the other person in his life.
When the couple arrive at a deserted Ostend hotel, any hope of anonymity is shattered by Countess Elizabet Bathory (Delphine Seyrig) and her secretary, Ilona (Andrea Rau). Both the hotel concierge (Paul Esser) and a police inspector- investigating a series of murders in nearby Bruges - remember the Countess from a previous visit some 40 years ago. Both men observe that she hasn't aged a day.
There's more than a touch of Seyrig's beloved Marienbad at play here, though the beauty of a wintry Ostend (the film was shot during a chilly June/July) is close to the terrain captured in Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now. As Kümel's inspired direction weaves its spell, the two couples' become virtually a mirror image: Valerie and Ilona both desperately unhappy with their respective partners behaviour, while Stefan and the Countess join hands to relive past atrocities. While it's hard to pick out any one performance from a quartet of pitch perfect turns, Andrea Rau's portrait of despair takes top honours (just); a lady without a past and precious little future. Though we never learn how long she's spent with the Countess, it's probably safe to assume Ilona is the latest in a line of 20th century girls who are tossed aside when the next beauty arrives. Seyrig is excellent as her cruel employer, using her powers to manipulate Stefan and his wife en route to a couple of death scenes that pay homage to traditional vampire lore - water, sunlight and stakes.
Blue Underground's special edition disc presents this film in its original aspect ratio (1.85:1) with image quality perhaps not as good as one would have hoped for. While interior scenes are often sharp and reasonably colourful, there are many instances of grain and some of Kumel's compositions come over on the soft side, with flesh tones occasionally veering towards pale. While the overall look can possibly be attributed to film stock, one can't help but wonder if BU and/or Kumel decided to leave things as they were, unwilling to alter the film's original look. This is the best looking version available for home viewing, but it perhaps could have looked a bit better. As far as extras are concerned, BU have done us proud, with two commentary tracks and a short Andrea Rau interview. The first audio track - Karlen in conversation with David Del Velle - has been ported over from the earlier Laserdisc release. All in all, it's an informative, often humourous talk, with Karlen in, let's say, playful mood. While his comments are toitally devoid of malice, he does perhaps come down a little too hard on Danielle Ouimet, with little or no credit regarding her considerable contribution. We learn that Karlen and Seyrig became firm friends during filming, and this much-missed lady could do no wrong in his eyes: a striking contrast to his relationship with Kumel. According to Karlen, the pair did not part as friends and Ouimet is also said to have had problems with her director.
The second commentary track ses Kumel himself take the microphone for an informative talk, moderated by BU's David Gregory. Here, Kumel holds forth on various directorial choices (including a minor difference of opinion with Seyrig); takes us through some of the more notorious scenes (including the "impossible sex scene"), and explains why he opted for the "Evil is eternal" finale. An absolute pleasure to listen to, with practically no 'dead air' - just a talented director speaking with pride about a "style exercise" that really does rise above the horror genre. Happily, Kümel doesn't have a bad word to say about his four splendid main characters, and ends his commentary with a friendly invitation to listeners, recommending the Hotel Astoria where we may just encounter the ghost of a beautiful lady who died too young.
The Karlen and Kümel tracks rate highly at a time when every other disc seems to offer twin comentary tracks of varying levels of interest. It's worth pointing out that watching this film with the sound turned down does enrich the viewing experience. Without the wonderfully poetic dialogue, the senses are firmly fixed on the sumptuous sets and four brilliantly tuned performances: magical exterior scenes and action/reaction shots all come over stronger than ever as a series of paintings, whether in the artificial light of the hotel or the dusk and darkness of the world outside.
Blue Underground's supplementary features also treat us to an 8 minute Andrea Rau interview, where this delightful lady touches on her training for classical ballet; her formative acting steps in soft porn and her thoughts on working with Seyrig and Kumel.
This most special edition is rounded off with a nice selection of stills, posters and artwork, together with a theatrical trailer which looks sharper and more colourful than the main feature.
It's good to see Kümel involved with this sort of project, and one can only hope he performs similar assists with Malpertuis, and the remarkable Eline Vere. For the time being, however, Daughters Of Darkness is a fine showcase for his undoubted talents.