Beautiful Strangers with Jon Larkin
daughtersofdarkness4
Certificate
18
★★★★

Review by PATP Admin

Finding the homoeroticism in horror films is nothing new. Ever since Nosferatu invited Thomas Hutter into his home with a flourish of his built-for-voguing arms and seduced him with wine and dinner before trying to give him a nasty suck, we’ve been reading under and overtones into the frights we love on the big screen.

But the overt queerness of horror cinema is something else altogether. The films that celebrate the outsider – be it the shy telekinetic girl who is bullied in the showers, or on the flipside, the awkward, bumbling mummy’s boy who likes to dress in her clothing to keep her alive long after her death – have always appealed to viewers who feel a sense of otherness, not belonging. On a more surface level some of us are there to indulge our tastes for outlandish interiors, swoon over devastating fashions or just enjoy watching a camp villain cackle their way through a garish plot, and that’s as valid a reason to tune in as any. There’s a list as long as Linda Blair’s tongue in The Exorcist to explore the queer appeal of horror. So what delightful fun for Liverpool Pride to give us the chance to explore one of these lesser known ‘outings’ on a Liverpool screen…

On Wednesday 1st November you get to ease your post-Halloween hangover with one of the under-rated classics in queer horror cinema, Daughters of Darkness…

“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….”

The gays love a tragic heroine. Throw in the glamour of this beautiful shadow of a woman languishing in the heat of the South of France, sipping cocktails and longing to be eternally youthful and you’ve got camp dynamite. Only we don’t pick up The Countess in Nice or Monaco, but in a rainy, out of season, desolate hotel in Ostend. However we do get languishing, we do get cocktails (of the troubling green variety), and we do get a tragic figure… if not a heroine, then a timely echo of the youth-obsessed culture we’re more immersed in than ever…

Countess Elizabeth Báthory doesn’t fill her face with Botox to maintain a youthful glow – but the blood of virgins. By any means necessary. She swans across Europe, her cape billowing in the wind, shimmering in an impossibly glam outfit that she got from Marlene Dietrich, with her companion du jour at her side. Right now it’s Ilona, the glum-faced young beauty styled after Louise Brooks. The Countess isn’t particularly interested with finding a hunky young man to carry her hat boxes and tuck her in at night (or should that be at dawn?), but with nubile young women just desperate to be plucked from a life of patriarchal servitude and treated to a life of luxury, trailing on her aristrocratic fur coat-tails from one penthouse to the next. Only Ilona doesn’t look too happy about it. At one point she even moans “You call this living?” The Countess, obsessed with the surface beauty of eternal youth and bourgeois excess, fails to acknowledge that she’s not saving enslaved women and liberating them – she’s just taking them out of the frying pan and plonking them mid-sizzle into her cool blue fire. She doesn’t particularly care whether they like it or not, they just have to match her purple ostrich feather ensembles and look good on her arm at the ambassador’s party.

If Ilona hates the ‘life’ she’s been blood-sucked into then her luck might just be in. Because when we check in with the vamps we meet newlyweds Stefan and Valerie, fresh off an overnight train having had a whirlwind marriage, en route back to England where Valerie is to meet Stefan’s formidable mother. But all is not what it seems. Stefan is a sadistic misogynist who believes women should do his bidding, and Valerie is far from happy. Stefan is also keeping a pretty big secret about his Mother – one I won’t spoil here but let’s just say the film’s queer credentials don’t end at Sapphic vampirism…

So begins a ridiculously camp and stylish tale of the seduction of Valerie by Countess Elizabeth. Made in 1970 (released in 71), the film is loaded down with problematic attitudes to both women and homosexuality. But never let that get in the way of a good horror film. Especially one as beautiful as this. Delphine Seyrig – the best damn Marlene Dietrich you’re gonna get post-Marlene Dietrich – imbues her immortal lesbian vampire with both a coquettish brass nerve and a sad, longing vulnerability. In a film with more than its share of humdinger lines and hammy performances she’s shockingly plausible as a seductress, and engaging to the very end. Whether she’s spreading her sparkly cape to warm the chilled shoulders of her shivering charge and resembling a Weimar-era giant bat in the process, or recounting graphic tales of torture whilst sipping her crème de menthe in the hotel bar, you just cannot get enough of her. She carries the film, with the other players curled at her feet. Eagle-eyed viewers of a certain age may notice that posh-boy-wifebeater Stefan is played by John Karlen, who smartened up his act ten years later, got a job on a building site and married Mary Beth in the role of Harv in Cagney and Lacey. Or you might just be too distracted by his ever-so-short tomato robe and slippers. Not to mention the fact that he treats poor Valerie like absolute dirt.

But rest assured he gets his comeuppance. This being a 70s Eurotrash lesbian vampire movie, it’s not long before Valerie falls under the spell of the Countess. Ilona, for all her whingeing, isn’t going to be happy about that – and neither is Stefan. The blood flows in some of the most awkward and inexplicable death scenes you’ll ever witness. For softcore horror fans – don’t be put off by this. The blood is minimal. However there’s plenty of nudity, with an impromptu naked moon dance from Ilona that has to be seen to be believed.

You’ll come out scratching your head – what was the film saying? Was it demonizing misogyny, the aristocracy, or was it aligning homosexuality with deviance and decadence? Or was it subverting the genre with the marabou slipper suddenly on the other foot as the Countess toys with Stefan’s masculinity and casts him aside to swoop in on his new bride? Maybe you’ll still be under the spell of the Countess and you won’t care. Whatever happens, sit back and let this languid, beautiful movie wash over you.

But you might want to check your neck for bite marks afterwards…

Jon Larking is a writer and filmmaker based in Liverpool. He is part of the Screaming Queenz podcast team and helps elect films for Liverpool Pride.

https://screamingqueenz.podbean.com/

@jonnylarkin

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