A new subgenre opened up in the shadowy margins between art cinema and sexploitation in the new cinematic permissiveness of the seventies. In the U.S., it was mostly seen in grindhouse films from directors aspiring for something more meaningful (see Joe Sarno’s Sin in the Suburbs, 1964) or drive-in titillations from hungry young filmmakers with room to slip something personal between the sex scenes (like Roger Corman‘s “Student Nurse” films). The Europeans, however, who were traditionally less coy about sex, worked sexuality into everything from social commentary (I Am Curious Yellow) to sophisticated psychological cinema (The Lickerish Quartet) to a whole subgenre of horror sometimes known as Eurotica. While most were crude, clumsy films that dropped sex and nudity into new takes on familiar stories, the best married the surreal beauty of French fantasy seen in the le cinema fantastique of Cocteau‘s Beauty and the Beast and the weird poetry of Franju‘s Eyes Without a Face with the lurid style and sexuality of the gothic horrors of Hammer Films. If the tradition of French fantasy is about dreams and nightmares breaking through the fabric of reality, the seventies added desire and sex to the equation and brought elegance and class to exploitation cinema.
“Daughters of Darkness” (Blue Underground)
“Every woman would sell her soul to stay so young,” remarks smarmy, troubled Stefan (John Karlen) to his newlywed wife Valerie (Danielle Ouimet). He’s referring to the impeccably poised Countess Bathory (Delphine Seyrig), who sweeps into the off-season luxury hotel they previously had all to themselves. Elegant and ageless, looking like some out-of-time aristocrat from Weimar cabaret high society, she could be a soul sister to Marlene Dietrich in her prime in perfectly coiffed hair and a deep red gown that radiates both opulence and taste. Stefan doesn’t know how right he is.
Poised on the shadowy margins between art cinema and sexploitation, Harry Kümel’s elegant and sexy vampire film draws on the legend of Hungary’s Countess Elizabeth Bathory, the notorious “Blood Queen” accused of murdering innocent maidens to bathe in their blood, and mixes it with the lesbian vampire story “Carmilla” and the new freedoms of seventies genre cinema ushered in by the lurid Italian thrillers and Hammer’s sex-and-blood horrors of the late sixties and early seventies. Delphine Seyrig, famed as a frosty beauty of art cinema (she appeared here between making The Milky Way and The Discreet Charm for the Bourgeoisie for Luis Bunuel), brings dignity and cool grace to the film with her imperious presence, and Kümel places this jewel of an actress in a perfectly elegant setting: a grand but empty hotel, the ominous mood of the Belgian coast in winter, the handsome medieval architecture of Bruges, where a day-trip brings the newlyweds face-to-face with another in a string of murdered women, all young, beautiful and drained of blood.