Girl Meets Context: The 1960s and 1970s saw an explosion of European horror films (often referred to as EuroShock or Eurotrash horror). These movies were often highly stylized and erotic, but usually lacked solid narratives and compelling characters. Though beloved for their camp sensibility (such as the werewolf films of Spain’s Paul Naschy) or comical artsy pretentiousness (such as the vampire erotica of France’s Jean Rollin), there are only a small canon of Eurotrash horror movies from this period that truly stand up as works of cinematic art. Many giallo movies qualify. But so does this outlier, a Belgian lesbian vampire film starring the glamorous Delphine Seyrig (best known as “the woman” from Alain Resnais’ experimental masterpiece Last Year at Marienbad) as the Countess Elizabeth Báthory, a real historical figure that this movie dreams up as an immortal vampire aristocrat wandering Europe with her girlfriend/servant Ilona (Andrea Rau). The film takes place during the off season at the Ostend seashore, where a young honeymooning couple, Stefan (John Karlen) and Valerie (Danielle Ouimet), check into a deserted grand hotel. The only other guests are the Countess and Ilona, who soon set their sights on the young couple. The movie’s been written about by Camille Paglia and has a cult following. Kristine and I talked about the class politics of the movie, it’s take on heterosexuality/marriage and it’s gonzo Gothic aesthetic. Be forewarned, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS, so go watch the movie and come back!
Kristine: Can I just say that Stefan was one of the more loathsome leading men we have encountered yet in our travels? For me, he is on par with Mick (the killer in Wolf Creek) and Linc (the peeping tom in Hardware)! Yeah, I said it.
Sean: He was a 1970s trust fund hipster. But was he sexy?
Kristine: NO and I didn’t find his pathology that interesting, either. Though the one scene he had with the Countess, when he was orgasming from her tales of torturing virgins, was pretty good.
Sean: I have to admit that I found him almost fetching in his mod aviator sunglasses and red leather jacket…
Kristine: Ugh, he was so gross. He and Valerie were SO the couple from Headhunters (gorgeous blond wife, rat-faced midget husband).
Sean: I feel like Valerie in this movie was a bit more interesting than Diana in Headhunters.
Kristine: I hated when the Countess and Ilona were like, “Oh YOU’RE such a beautiful couple.” Because, no. One of them was lovely, the other a troll.
Sean: It makes me wonder if the casting of Stefan isn’t on point then, if one of the movie’s projects is to totally skewer a certain kind of masculinity. This isn’t an attack on like, corn-fed, beefy dumb-but-loveable oafs. Stefan’s meant to be petty, insecure, controlling, aristocratic, educated and decadent. I feel that if I had to name some spiritual cousin to this movie, it would be like… The Stepford Wives. Total quasi-feminist 1970s consciousness-raising horror about how women are trapped in systems of power that self-serving men like Stefan help perpetuate.
Kristine: Sure, agreed. About the PRISON of marriage and monogamy. This movie is all about partner-swapping and swinging and free love (so 1970s; I’m surprised there wasn’t a “key party” scene).
Sean: So is this movie totally queer? Or does it not quite live up to the “lesbian” in “lesbian vampire movie”?
Kristine: I mean…yes and no, right? I have to say that the timing of my viewing this was interesting, because right after we watched this I watched About Face: The Supermodels Then and Now, the Greenfield-Saunders documentary on HBO about aging in the modeling industry and it was FASCINATING.
Sean: I’d love to hear about the connections between the documentary and this movie because I think this movie is DEFINITELY interested in the relationship between women and aging. Remember when Valerie says, “Every woman would sell her soul to stay young” at the beginning of the movie?
Kristine: Oh yes! In the doc, supermodels from different generations talk about their experiences and also how they feel about aging out (or not aging out, as the case may be) of the industry. One of the interviewees is the amazing and lovely Carmen Dell’Orefice, who is 81 and still works all the time, and is NOT cast as an old granny. It is really well done and fascinating.
Sean: Yeah, part of what “vampirism” is a metaphor for in this movie is just that female beauty does NOT dwindle with age, which is the dominant story we tell in our culture. Like, the concierge is SHOCKED and taken aback that the Countess is a gorgeous woman, and yet should look old. But because she still has sexual allure and thus, sexual power, she is supernatural and monstrous. I just listened to a Joan Rivers interview with Terry Gross where she was lamenting being old. Joan Rivers would kill to be the Countess Báthory.
Kristine: Ha, exactly! But its contradictory and kind of fucked up. First, to answer your earlier question: in some ways, yes, this movie is queer in that it is smashing the patriarchy, right? But I DO think the movie is reinforcing the idea that women can only be truly powerful, like the Countess, by maintaining their beauty and clinging to youth because older women are not beautiful and therefore are not powerful. I mean, the Countess doesn’t radiate an older woman’s beauty and that’s highly significant AND it’s the problem with her character. She radiates a younger woman’s beauty… and so that is how she has stepped outside of nature. I mean, God, this movie is totally about plastic surgery if you think about it. The Countess is just using supernatural forces, rather than expensive elective procedures, to STAY young. There is a big difference between staying young and aging gracefully. Which is an idea the modeling documentary was exploring as well. I just want to add that Carmen Dell’Orefice would be AMAZING as a lesbian vampire matriarch. Google her and you’ll see what I mean.
Sean: Well, let’s talk about the patriarchy stuff and then let’s talk about the prison of beauty stuff.
Kristine: It would be different if the Countess was granted eternal life due to feeding off youth and she was using that power to, you know, DO stuff. But in this movie the means is the ends, right? She is just existing to exist and stay beautiful, and she must constantly feed that. So, yes, even though she has escaped the “prison” of heterosexuality and monogamy, she is still trapped in the prison of a certain kind of beauty standard.
Sean: Here’s what she says in her final confrontation with Stefan: “I’m just an outmoded character, nothing more. You know, the beautiful stranger, slightly sad, slightly mysterious, who haunts one place after another. Two weeks ago in Nice and Monte Carlo, two days ago in Bruges….”
Kristine: Right. Why does the Countess target couples instead of just young women?
Sean: Well before we get to that… I feel like your point just opened a can of worms. You say “she just exists to exist,” which is totally right on…
Kristine: The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out…
Sean: But isn’t that SO tied up with her class status?
Kristine: Yes, good point!
Sean: Isn’t this movie just a big indictment of aristocracy? I mean, the Countess and Stefan are both the villains and they’re the aristocrats.
Kristine: To be honest, I didn’t think of that during the movie but you are smart and right.
Sean: The whole aimlessness of her existence is like, the life of the aristocrat. Drifting from Bruges to Monte Carlo to Nice, just visiting glamorous places just to do it. You’re absolutely correct that there is no substance or meaning to her lifestyle. It’s all about impeccable surfaces. I mean for me, this is the central tension in the movie and I think it’s actually quite complicated. The movie itself luxuriates in beautiful surfaces, in decadent locales, and the viewer experiences a LOT of visual pleasure as a result. And yet, ultimately, I think the movie is suspicious of and uncertain about the value of those surfaces, even as if clearly loves them. In that way, the movie might be a touch incoherent or contradictory, but I find those contradictions more interesting than if the movie was some straight polemic about the grotesquerie of the upper classes.
Kristine: I am convinced you are correct.
Sean: The Countess is Paris Hilton! No, she is Pippa Middleton… or a Real Housewife of Somewheresville.
Kristine: Fuck, I want to be an aimless aristocrat.
Sean: Oh the movie totally knows we all have that fantasy, and it’s happy to indulge in it for us, even as it points out all the problems with it.
Kristine: Remember when she casually runs over the Inspector in her big, bourgeois car?????
Sean: Her driving down the Rational Inquiring Masculine Authority and also just shoving him aside and being like, “Yech, I have PLACES TO BE” was the best shit ever. [Editor’s Note: For the backstory on RIMA, see our discussion of Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy.] The way in which that cop, who in horror movie tradition is often a sacrosanct figure who brings order to chaos and rationality to the irrational (like, and we’ve cited this before, the psychiatrist who gives the explanatory monologue at the end of Psycho about Norman’s “condition” – though one of that movie’s big setpieces is the murder of Arbogast) is reduced in this movie to someone entirely incidental and pointless is AMAZING, and perhaps one of the most radical things about Daughters of Darkness.
Kristine: I loved that as well. And the Countess’s treatment of the concierge at the hotel (“oh, it’s little you” ) was great. It takes a real classy broad to pull off that kind of haughtiness and make it appealing rather than hateful.
Sean: See I thought she was charming with the concierge, even though she was a bit haughty.
Kristine: I didn’t think that. He was scared shitless of her.
Sean: I mean, yes, she unnerves him but that seems a far cry from “scared shitless.” That’s important, in my mind, because it shows how the Countess’ magnetism is all bound up with her class status. She has not just the aesthetics of the aristocracy, but the grace as well. This imbues aristocratic bearing with actual meaning, I’d argue (and, come to think of it, which makes her an entirely different kind of creature than Paris Hilton – “outmoded” indeed!) She actually has class – the graces, the breeding, the ability to charm and console and read social cues and also, most importantly dictate and control social encounters while always redirecting attention from away from her little acts of control and social mastery. For example, the first encounter she has with Stefan and Valerie, where they have just come in out of the rain and the Countess makes them join her for a drink but it looks like she’s the one putting herself out but in actuality she’s putting them out…
Kristine: I agree and I loved the way she just MADE them do things with words. “You should be nice to me … Everyone should like me.”
Sean: That’s the sense of entitlement and privilege that imbues her class standing, and I think it’s also part of what is being held up as monstrous in the movie. She’s charming but… insidious. She’s graceful but… parasitic. When she gets speared on the fallen tree in the end, all of that is what is being killed, right? Those are all the qualities the movie is holding up to marvel at, delight in (a bit contemptuously) and then destroy. I mean, right before her death she gives that AMAZING speech to Valerie about her own existential drift – which she has now “infected” Valerie with… “My love, my love, my only one. There’s so much of life still to taste. So many nights tumbling and tumbling away in to the abyss of time. Faster.” That tumbling and tumbling is meant to signify excess and meaninglessness, all her wealth, all her privilege…
Kristine: That speech is very The Great Gatsby, no?
Sean: TOTALLY Gatsby. She has all the time in the world. In this universe, being a vampire is like being the ultimate decadent because you have the MOST VALUABLE CAPITAL of all: time. Endless supplies of time, tumbling and tumbling. That kind of excess leads to drift, absurdity, pointlessness, irrelevance.
Kristine: Let’s not forget Stefan’s drag mama, ringing for the butler to bring him fresh purple orchids to eat whilst reclining in the sunroom. WTF was up with that, by that way?
Sean: Okay, the drag mama… I don’t know what to say.
Kristine: I mean, was that meant to suggest that Stefan is queer?
Sean: I DON’T KNOW.
Kristine: This was the person Stefan was telling Valerie was his disapproving aristrocratic mother, right?
Kristine: I feel like it’s significant because it opens up the possibility that Stefan is dodging Valerie’s requests to include her in his world because he is ashamed of the world, not of her (as we and Valerie are led to believe for the first 20 minutes or so of the movie). The world he comes from is drained of ALL masculinity. I mean, that drag mama is basically an effeminate, flouncing Roman emperor – she’s chubby, made up, immobile, derisive… She’s a situation.
Sean: Can we first talk about her conservatory? The interiors in this movie are fucking amazing. They blow the ones in Blood and Black Lace away.
Kristine: I loved the conservatory and the orchid eating. So decadent and WTF. That queen… I can’t even.
Sean: She was amazing. She’s like, worlds better than the antique dealer in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. She reminded me of Dean Stockwell in Blue Velvet, lip syncing, high on bennies, under pounds of makeup. Can I just pause to say that reading Last Exit to Brookyln with you was one of the best aesthetic experiences of my life?
Kristine: Ha! I WAS JUST THINKING THAT!!!!!! That benny tea chapter with the queens… just amazing. I think Stefan’s drag mama reminded me of a fat Patrick McDonald.
Sean: That book ROCKED MY WORLD.
Kristine: Sean, meet … PATRICK MCDONALD!
Sean: Oh boy. Rococo von Cumeater.
Kristine: HA HA HA!
Sean: Felchy McGarish.
Kristine: So, does being aristocratic = being sexually perverse, including maybe homosexual? This movie, like Hour of the Wolf, suggests YES. Did Stefan and Valerie remind you of Johan and Alma from Hour of the Wolf?
Sean: They do sort of, though I think Stefan is more of an out-and-out bastard than Johan was. But in terms of this movie’s equating queerness with decadence and immortality… that’s my big worry/anxiety about this movie, because remember the scene you already referenced where the Countess and Stefan have an orgasmic experience while she details all the perverse, violent things she used to do to young virgins?
Sean: And it’s total Wolf Creek torture porn?
Sean: There you go. Valerie’s terror and hysterical reaction to them there is… the reaction of the proletariat to the perversions of the bourgeois. Remember that Stefan might be ashamed of her because she’s an ordinary (poor) girl… Valerie says “You are ashamed of me, you are afraid of me” to Stefan. I thought it was an interesting complication that she feels he is afraid of her and there’s all kinds of possible pathologies to explain that fear she senses. He could be fundamentally afraid of her gender, or it could be this idea about how the aristocracy fears the common man/woman (we’re civilized; they’re savages).
Kristine: Yeah, and so perhaps the most important thing that the Countess and Stefan have in common is that they’re both sadists, as her monologue about like, shoving hot pokers in girls’ mouths attests. This movie doesn’t imagine the lesbian vampire as some kind of radical figure whose values fly in the face of heterosexual masculinity. Stefan and the Countess are more alike than unlike. At also bear in mind, the Countess is not really liberating the women she takes as lovers. She is enslaving them further. The line between erotic partner and indentured servant is totally hazy in this movie. Remember when Ilona says, “You call this living???” And Ilona was obviously also working class and, can I say, amazing looking?
Sean: Ilona was totally stylish and gorgeous.
Kristine: I loved her face! But Ilona was merely the Countess’s sexcretary and had to get permission to do everything.
Sean: I agree with your point 1000%. That’s what vampirism is in this movie: pure decadence, mastery over your inferiors, permission to be a sexual sadist, meaninglessness, a universe of exquisite surfaces that signify only emptiness and endlessness. That’s what is passed along, that’s the curse of eternal life. Nothing has any value when you’re immortal.
Kristine: It’s a great metaphor, right? But I wanted Ilona to be the Countess’s equal and their relationship to be this radical example of equity and respect and sisterhood. But it… wasn’t.
Sean: Ilona was her lapdog, literally.
Kristine: HA HA HA HA! Dirty, dirty, Sean. Why didn’t we get any actual muff-diving?
Sean: I want to talk about that. But I also want to point out that, unlike the refined Countess, Ilona couldn’t control her perversions. Remember how she jumps the gun and does a modern dance number naked on Valerie’s window ledge? But the lack of sexy scissoring was what I meant about the “lesbian” in “lesbian vampire movie” being missing from this movie.
Kristine: Ilona was starving! She needed something to eat right away!
Sean: Every lesbian encounter was signaled by a door slamming in our face, keeping us out of the room while scissoring occurred and meat curtains were being drawn.
Kristine: That’s because the ways of women are mysterious, Sean. You wouldn’t understand. Can I just say that Ilona and Stefan’s sex scene was beyond weird. I don’t understand their sexual position. Both of them on their backs, head to foot?
Kristine: Holding hands!? The junk DOES NOT line up that way, by the way.
Sean: Yes, it was totally bizarre. As was Ilona’s death scene. In fact, the choreography of all the death scenes in this movie was off the charts. The fruit bowl splitting and the razor and all that…
Kristine: Sean. The death by fruit bowl was ridiculous amazingness. I mean, when they start trying to like, smother him or crush his face to death with an ornate crystal fruit dish I was DYING. Who does that?!
Sean: Rich heiresses and immortal goblin-queens! I actually love the joke that this ornamental knick-knack, which is totally symbolic of all the gross excesses of the aristocracy, gets used as a murder weapon. It’s this improbable object, mostly just because it is fragile. But there was something about that scene that felt right, like the Countess just reaching for the closest object at hand to commit this murder and… of course in their world it will be some ridiculous ornamental fruit bowl!
Kristine: I swear to god when the cart of food spilled over I thought she was going to reach for the lobster.
Sean: Hahahaha! The same thought crossed my mind!
Kristine: I thought she was going to like, pinch his eyelids with the lobster’s claws and then slap him across the cheek with its tail.
Sean: But when the fruit bowl breaks from the pressure and then acrobatically flips and its two halves perfect slice his wrists, it was amazing and over the top.
Kristine: Which gives us that STUPENDOUS image of both of the women feeding on his slashed wrists and exterminating his creepy life. It was amazing. Okay, I have questions about Ilona’s death scene, though.
Sean: Do you remember the five straight minutes of Ilona’s pinwheeling arm knocking decadent perfume bottles off the bathroom shelf?
Kristine: Ha! Well, at first I thought it was just ridiculous that she could get killed by a little old razor to the back. But then I thought…was she supposed to have gotten staked, just in the inverse? And when the Countess was thrown from the car and impaled, was that also supposed to be a staking?
Sean: Yes, I think so.
Kristine: Stefan laughing when forcing the hysterical Ilona into the shower was so horrible. God, he was vile.
Sean: Stefan is such a caricature of the brutish fop. He is Joffrey from A Game of Thrones.
Kristine: What about Stefan sitting in shock on the bed while the ladies cleaned up his filthy mess? This movie does not have a very high opinion of men. It thinks that, at their core, they want to inflict pain and humiliation on women, but that they are also vapid little boys incapable of rectifying their own mistakes so they ALSO need women to play the Mommy/caretaker role and it is disgusting.
Sean: Remember when he says to the Countess, “Valerie will do what I TELL HER TO.”
Kristine: “I am a man and she is mine.”
Sean: Kristine here is why I adore this movie. When Stefan says ““I am a man and she is mine,” he is wearing his tomato-red bathrobe-and-slippers ensemble.
Kristine: Sean, that mid-thigh tomato robe! I COULDNT!!! It WAS an ensemble.
Sean: The fact that he is wearing THAT when he says that line is BRILLIANT.
Kristine: He is Little Lord Fuckpants (copyright Christopher Moltisanti). I loved how the wardrobe was entirely a white and red and black color scheme.
Sean: Oh my god, yes. All the major characters were always contrasting. Do you remember the Countess’s purple robe with purple ostrich feather shag?
Kristine: This movie gets away with a lot because it is extremely stylish. For example, after they bury Ilona at the beach (bad idea, by the way) and Valerie is cold in her 5-year-old’s Christening gown…
Kristine: …and the Baroness stands behind her in HER Greta Garbo spangled ball gown and spreads her vampire cloak out into wings and then pulls Valerie into her embrace. That scene is laughable but in this movie it was GREAT and gave me chills and made me laugh with delight. This movie is full of sartorial delights.
Sean: I fucking LOVE the Countess and Valerie in that scene! They are like standing on a big sand dune and then the Countess says: “The sun rises in a few hours” [cue to open cape]. So did you notice that the character Valerie despises shifts from the Countess to Stefan over the course of the movie?
Kristine: Of course I did! Let me ask you this, going back to the lesbian question…
Sean: But isn’t she brainwashed either way?
Kristine: Yes, she is beholden to the aristocracy either way, exchanging one master for another. Do you think part of the movie is tapping into 1970s fears about actualized women? Like, there are men watching who are all…my wife goes to these WOMEN’S LIB meetings, I bet they are SEDUCING her into being a LESBIAN. Like what’s-her-name on The L Word?
Kristine: No, the other one. Remember, who seduced Jenny in the first season?
Kristine: Yes, Marina the Latina.
Sean: She was actually a European rich bitch.
Sean: I think yes in some ways, but I DO NOT think this movie was made for the man sitting in the audience who might think that. It is far too campy and far too knowing. I think in some ways it’s a take-down of marriage, but if it is then it is talking to queers who all ready are in on the joke and/or women who will identify with Valerie. I do LOVE the idea of hetereosexual men sitting in the audience and, through the course of the movie’s many mechanisms, finding themselves identifying with Valerie. THAT is a queer triumph and doesn’t imperil that male viewer’s heterosexuality. Instead, it just makes him an awesome straight man, and an actual empathic human being rather than some monstrous machismo robot. But remember, when Valerie tells Stefan, “When she’s near me I become someone else”? In that way, yes, this movie is the religious right’s fear of homosexual indoctrination. Like, if your pretty and innocent daughter or wife or sister hangs out with some urban, decadent lesbian glamazon she will become INFECTED with glamour and stop wearing the fringe stonewashed denim jacket you bought her.
Kristine: Remember the first scene, when Valerie and Stefan are doing it, and the camera keeps zeroing in on their wedding rings? Right there it is set up to be a critique, no? And also, like I said, that the Baroness focuses on couples, not singles.
Sean: It is a total critique in the High Gothic style.
Kristine: The union must be destroyed!
Sean: Valerie goes from patriarchal prisoner to lackey of the aristocracy to…. what? What is the end of this movie for that character? Is she doomed? Or set free?
Kristine: I was dissatisfied with the end, kind of.
Kristine: Maybe it meant that now that the Countess and Stefan are dead, she can be her own undead person?
Sean: But isn’t she continuing the cycle of aimless wandering and aristocratic decadence?
Kristine: I just don’t think Valerie had the means, monetary and otherwise, to become the new Countess. I didn’t buy her as the new vampire queen. Sorry, Vals.
Sean: Huh. But she is leading that couple into the Chateau de Menage á Trois, all rich and fancy.
Kristine: Yeah, fine. I just didn’t buy it. Small aside: I love any movie that includes a credit for the furrier in the closing.
Sean: Hahahah! I think Valerie is doomed, I think the end is a curse for her, not a feminist triumph.
Kristine: I agree. Ugh, but can we really argue she is worse off then before??? With that ugly husband, who asks her “Can you even READ???”
Sean: Well, but that’s coming at it from the wrong angle. It’s not about her personal comfort, it’s about the cycles of power. Whether or not she, as an individual, is better or worse off isn’t as interesting to think about as recognizing that nothing about the status quo has shifted in the end.
Kristine: Hmmm. I want to talk about when the Countess is counseling Valerie to accept Stefan’s sexual sadism. A twisted version of Dan Savage’s GGG theory.
Sean: Okay, the sexual sadism felt very much part of the movie’s High Gothicism – the gothic belt-whipping that occurs?
Kristine: Agreed. But also, as you pointed out, the Countess and Stefan are ultimately cut from the same cloth, as are the aristocrats from Hour of the Wolf, and Saló, and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, and on and on…
Sean: I just want to point out how I planned the Phenomena/Daughters of Darkness Gothic overlap and I am proud of it. All the smash-cuts to like, THE STORM-TOSSED OCEAN. Remember when Valerie wakes up all bruised with belt marks all over her naked flesh? And Stefan HAS THE BELT COILED AROUND HIS WRIST? But then Valerie has this extended reverie where she sees an ocean liner in the distance, glinting with the golden rays of the rising sun? It’s this very weird interlude.
Kristine: I actually don’t remember that. I DO remember Valerie putting on her toddler’s “My Day at the Ballet” dress and coat and toddling off to the train station. The infantization of Valerie was… well, it happened.
Sean: So what do you rate this movie?
Sean: Moi aussi. This is a personal favorite of mine. I might even put it my top twenty of all time.
Kristine: Can I say that I think it is very interesting that we started off erotic thriller month with two European movies? Those Europeans!
Sean: Ah yes, next week the decadence of Pedro Amodóvar! I cannot wait…
The Girls Rating: Masterpiece!
The Freak’s Rating: Masterpiece!