Lesbian vampires back from the dead

In a golden age for B-movie bloodsucking, one cult horror was a bite above the rest. It is now out on DVD
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In the early 1970s, there was a spate of Sapphic-themed horror films. Paloma Picasso played Countess Bathory bathing in virgins' blood in Walerian Borowczyk's Immoral Tales (1974), Ingrid Pitt was cheerfully digging her teeth into ingenues' necks in Hammer's The Vampire Lovers (1970), and Danish actress Yutte Stensgaard was causing all manner of bloody upheaval in a girls' finishing school in Lust For a Vampire (1971). Arguably, though, the strangest vampire-exploitation picture of all was Daughters of Darkness (1971), from the maverick Belgian, Harry Kümel. The film, which hasn't been available in the UK for many years, is about to surface again on DVD.

Kümel is the quintessential cult director. He features as a character in Nicholas Royle's novel, Antwerp (2005) (in the book, videotaped copies of Kumel's films are found stuck to the bodies of murdered prostitutes). Kümel elicited one of Orson Welles's last great performances in his film, Malpertuis (1973), and is a fund of colourful anecdotes about Welles's off-screen behaviour. ("He couldn't remember his lines but, worse, he couldn't equalise his lines. From one shot to another, he would have a different tone of voice. He kept asking me: 'Harry, why did you ask me [to be in the film]? I am such a ham.' I said: 'Orson, I know you are a ham. Of course, you are a ham!'" Kümel's Kafka-esque thriller The Coming of Joachim Stiller (1976), is described by Time Out as "a fabulous amalgam of magical realism... and Seventies style."

A highly opinionated cinephile with a professorial air, who reveres John Ford and Robert Bresson, Kümel is not (at least at first glance) the type of director you would expect to make a low-budget lesbian vampire movie. However, the Flemish film-maker has always been a provocateur. When producer Pierre Drouot, of Showking Films in Brussels, approached him with an offer to direct a movie, he leapt at the opportunity. Drouot told him that the film would have to be "very commercial, very cheap to make."

Kümel wasn't sure what subject he would choose but, one morning, when he went out to buy a pint of milk, he noticed a historical magazine with an article about the "Bloody Countess," the 16th-century Hungarian aristocrat alleged to have bathed in the blood of young virgin girls. "I read that article returning home and having a coffee, and I said, well, that's the subject!'"

At first, the producers protested that this was a period epic and would therefore be far too expensive. Kümel's solution was to bring Bathory into the 20th century. His next step was to recruit a major star to play the Countess. At the time, Delphine Seyrig was the darling of European art-house cinema. She starred in Alain Resnais's Last Year in Marienbad (1961) and François Truffaut's Stolen Kisses (1968).

"My idea was to make a film that had all the elements of a trash movie – sex, horror – and to put in an intellectual actress," the director recalls. To his slight surprise, she was game. "I went to see her with beating heart. I thought she was going to throw that screenplay in my face. [But] she she said she loved it." Kümel confides that he had less luck with the English actor Malcolm McDowell, who did throw the screenplay in his face. (The director adds wryly that McDowell's fear of appearing in trashy movies didn't stop him from taking a role in Caligula.)

Daughters of Darkness is a deliriously oddball film. It's about a young married couple who meet a beautiful but vaguely sinister countess (Seyrig), and her female companion, in a deserted seaside hotel. The countess has stayed here before, many years ago. The concierge, who was a kid back then, remembers her vividly and is astounded that she hasn't changed at all in the intervening years. Three young women, meanwhile, have been murdered nearby and their bodies drained of blood. A Maigret-like detective is in pursuit of the Countess.

The film is a Belgian-French-German co-production. All the characters speak English in an arch, slightly stilted way that rekindles memories of old Abba songs. It is clear that, for most, this is not their first language. Their self-conscious delivery of lines like, "imagine, she bled 300 virgins to death!' or, "there are other trains, you have only one life," adds to the disorienting effect.

Kümel's primary interest is clearly in his leading actress. She is fetishised by the camera as if she's a latter-day Marlene Dietrich and the director is her Josef von Sternberg. "That was my idea," the director recalls. "I said [to her] we'll make you look like a movie star of the 1930s because they are immortal." It's a clever conceit for a vampire movie.

By the director's own confession, some of the other performances are on the creaky side. He recalls going to Seyrig after a particularly awkward sequence and apologising to her for the shortcomings of some of the supporting cast.

"Oh, don't you worry, Harry! The only thing they [the audience] – will look at in this movie will be me," she blithely told him.

Seyrig was right, to a point. She gives a wonderfully malevolent performance, a smile fixed permanently on her face as she contrives new ways to sup on virgins' blood. She wears red lipstick and plenty of mascara. What is also clear, though, is that Kümel is a very elegant director with a visual flair not normally associated with low-grade exploitation pics. The film is full of references to other movies. The Countess's companion is self-consciously modelled on silent star Louise Brooks. There are Hitchcock-ian touches and some very bizarre cameos. Fons Rademakers, one of the most distinguished Dutch directors of his generation, plays Mother, a predatory and camp figure who has some connection to the fiancé.

"People don't understand that twisting around of genres. When they read scripts, they read them straightforwardly," Kümel laments of many actors' inability to understand the subtext and irony that there is in his work. At the same time, he freely admits that Daughters of Darkness was aimed at a mass audience. There is plenty of gratuitous nudity and bloodshed. To the director's gratification, the film sold in 70 countries worldwide (more than any other Belgian film in history, its director boasts) and quickly earned cult status.

The film hasn't been available in the UK for many years. It was released in the 1990s but in a shabby and illegal version. But in the Twilight era, vampire movies are enjoying a vigorous revival.

Kümel made his last feature, Eline Vere, in 1991. However, throughout his career, he has continued making training films and advertisements, as well as features. He also has a parallel career as a teacher at film-school and university. As for Daughters of Darkness, he doesn't feel that it has been ignored at all. "Oh, it has been terribly [well] acknowledged, above its qualities," he laughs. "It has a great and lasting reputation... I am extremely lucky compared to other Belgian film-makers." He adds that Daughters of Darkness has two sets of followers. Horror fans enjoy its use of genre elements but it also has a certain standing among art-house aficionados too. "The combination of 'artiness' and 'trashiness' is a formula that works!"

'Daughters of Darkness' is on DVD