Behind My Son of Shadows

Nothing ever goes according to plan. This is especially true in the mad science known as creative writing.

I’d been planning to place something within the Reanimation Station for quite some time, to take apart and rewrite an old film and make it into a more coherent story. There have been some smaller, minor experiments before that point: splicing Society and They Live, looking at alternative story ideas and possible narrative execution derived from Cannibal Holocaust, From Beyond, and even Hogzilla, and outright creating a short continuation or epilogue to Crimson Peak.

But this wasn’t enough. It’s never enough.

Before undertaking this Project, without a hope for financial compensation and only out of the perverted goodness of my black heart, I needed to attempt something … larger.

‎Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness is not a bad film, though it isn’t as well known as it should be. In fact, it is a great movie. But, as most homage and fanfiction writers do, I wondered what would have happened if it had gone … differently.

It all began with the premise: what if Stefan, who claimed to be the heir to Chilton Manor, told his new wife Valerie the truth about his phone call back home, and what he truly wanted out of her?

I’d already seen the film twice, but that wasn’t enough. The first Phase of my process was reading up on the movie, on the characters, and even some basic thoughts from critics and its director. I also thought it useful to fill in some gaps about Elizabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess of Hungary, herself. I knew that in order to make the story compelling, I needed to consider what each character was thinking and feeling beyond how their movements and facial expressions are telegraphed in the film.

But even before all of this, I’d already decided that the story was going to be two scenes: the first being the aftermath of Stefan telling Valerie the truth and him meeting Ilona Harczy in the honeymoon suite as per the usual proceedings of the film, and then the Countess Elizabeth Bathory also coming into the room to talk with Stefan privately, and confront him over the knowledge of what he really is.

It sounds simple, right? The film works well not just because of its turns in lush and austere aesthetics, but also due to what it doesn’t show or say. I know that ascribing clear meaning or explanations to things from the film wouldn’t work as they are not in the film. That is a personal rule of mine. If I am going to work in someone else’s playground I am either only going to play with the toys they’ve left behind, or take note of those items and bring some that potentially complement them.

For example, there are a few references to Elizabeth Bathory, and I did place some Dracula allusions into the narrative as well. What’s fascinating is that from Bathory, and Vlad Tepes came in no small part influence for how the image of the vampire is depicted in the literary arts. Yet Dracula isn’t necessarily Vlad Tepes, and the historical Elizabeth Bathory isn’t a vampire. It is the ideas of these legends based off history and folklore, these created identities that are the most fascinating elements to me. They are fictional personas masking something else entirely, another concept or truth that ultimately gets revealed while saying very little about their concrete origins. And if you have watched Daughters of Darkness, you also know that this applies to Stefan to some extent as well: in that he too is a construct over another, darker truth that gets realized one way in the film, and I attempt to reveal in another in my own derivative narrative.

Unfortunately, what was supposed to be sparse with little bits of ornamentation changed into something else in the operating theatre of my writer’s mind. The truth of what happened with Stefan and Valerie in my narrative, in contrast to the film, was going to be slowly revealed and only touched upon: kind of like how the characters in Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” talk about abortion without being blunt or direct about it.

But if we are going to go into literary influences that aided me in building on, and understanding this cinematic narrative, I would also mention Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice: a novella that deals with homoerotic and queer undertones along with the dissolution of a morality and mind obsessed with possessing youth and beauty. Ostend in Belgium, while not Venice, Italy still has some of the architectural and ornamental tradition that mirrors the latter.

There is definitely a Continental European literary influence over Daughters of Darkness, especially in seduction and love as a passionate force that destroys bourgeoisie mentality — a middle-class mindset — and that life itself.

My alternate ending idea changed, however, when Ilona Harczy wanted more “screen time” in the narrative. To elaborate, she spoke to me. One thing that I’ve seen online is that different reviews of Daughters of Darkness ascribe a variety of perspectives to the film. But what they all seem to agree on, or most of them, is that the women — the vampires — are lesbians. It does seem that Elizabeth and Ilona are in a hierarchical lesbian power exchange relationship, especially accentuated by the fact that Elizabeth is the vampire that made or sired Ilona: compelling her with what seems to be a bond. And towards the end of the film, Valerie is influenced by that same magnetism. But I think there are complexities there that are more than just a black and white sense of sexuality, or even gender understanding.

Ilona, to me, wanted to leave the worn down, exhausting relationship she has with her domineering partner, still hungry for blood herself but also for companionship with someone other than Elizabeth, maybe even a temporary reprieve from her own sense of unhappiness. She is a mirror to Stefan in that he too trying to run from his own responsibilities, wanting to embrace his hungers, his appetites but only able to make excuses to attempt to escape the inevitable as well. Neither character is happy, and in this derivative construction of mine, I wanted to make it clear that they know this on one level: even if it is lost in translation between them.

I was content to let Ilona have her time with Stefan, but then a new challenge arose. You see, I really liked — love — Kümel’s dialogue. There are some lines in his film that I just wanted to exist in this alternate ending that was quickly becoming an alternative chapter. It began with Stefan and Ilona, and then after Ilona’s limited third-person narrative, I had to go back to Valerie and see what her interaction with the Countess would be like.

Valerie runs away, this time from the verbal truth and not the visceral, punitive corporeal punishment that Stefan utilizes against her in his sense of thwarted ambition — of being the subordinate instead of the master as he thinks a man should be — and the Countess finds her. I didn’t want to reveal too much about what happened, or what was said otherwise there is that fear of repetition in the narrative. A lot of the lines still worked, especially when applied to Valerie realizing that Stefan’s sadistic desires, and his sexuality are not what she expected: or the truth about his home life.

I think where I had to be really careful was attempting to get to the third-person limited perspective of the Countess. Whereas Valeris is a central protagonist in the film and much about her own development is already made clear to the point it being dangerous repetition, Elizabeth Bathory needs remain more of an opaque, yet open mystery. You can, and you should, read between the lines. She has seen it all. In fact, she has done it all. When you look at her interaction with Stefan in the film, you see they have a lot in common. The difference? The Countess reached the point where she can enact these desires. Stefan has not.

I was thinking about character motivations and dynamics. I considered the fact that Elizabeth would like to travel around a great deal, not just because the Bathory family lost their land ages after the Blood Countess’ house arrest and death, but also because if she had been entombed alive in her own home, she wouldn’t want to stay in one place for too long. It would terrify the hell out of her, which is why she needs to move around so much, and how she came to the hotel at Ostend again. At the same time, the Countess is old. It’s said that it is never polite to speculate on a lady’s age, but when you see Elizabeth interact with others, in the way she moves, or looks at them, or smiles it really does feel like she is ethereal, that she is attempting to remember how to affect human mannerisms and emotion when the only real feelings she channels anymore are disaffection and hunger. She’s jaded and tired, and while Ilona is desperate to feel something else — anything — Elizabeth has particular tastes and likes to take incredible risks.

I added even more literary references, especially from Milton’s Paradise Lost. The historical Elizabeth Bathory, who apparently suffered seizures and some say actually bathed in the blood of healthy innocents to stop them, was also a highly literate young girl who speak Latin and ancient Greek. She was smart, and if the Countess of this film is her, or descended from her, or bases herself off her, I can see her comparing her idea of love to Satan, Death, and Sin. I know that it’s Mary Shelley who makes references to Paradise Lost in Frankenstein, but it just suits the Gothic environment crafted in Daughters in Darkness.

Writing this has been challenging. Imagine filming, and the conceit that a lot of the work in film is post-production: in the editing room. So consider finding a complete and excellent film, a masterpiece, and cutting apart pieces of it, and splicing together dialogue into different spaces, with words that are your own and might possibly complement the original dialogue: while something new. That’s what I attempted to do here.

However, and this is important, I didn’t want to destroy the themes of the film. A part of me wonders, even now, if making this ending focused on Stefan doesn’t defeat the purpose of the film, or go against the natures of the characters involved. Certainly, I can’t deny that I changed its trajectory and emphasis on women while, at the same time I feel like it still explores those elements amongst power dynamics, and the questions of eros, and freewill.

Let me just say: rewatching the film again, and going through various scenes and their dialogue made me truly appreciate the detail and layers, the nuances, in the narrative. Elizabeth is calculating, but she isn’t all-knowing. She just knows how to adapt like, in Kümel’s words to Mark Gatniss in Horror Europa, any good “demagogue.” Elizabeth is a casual opportunist, and while she seems to have preferences towards Valerie, for what seem to be similar reasons as Stefan’s, she doesn’t rule him out either. I think what gets me is her speech to Valerie in the film about what men want from women, sexually and kink-wise, and all the while you begin to realize that when Elizabeth is talking about what Valerie is expected to do for Stefan, she is really wanting Valerie to undertake these actions for her. In a way, Elizabeth is projecting her needs and desires on Stefan and men to introduce them, or define them, for Valerie. She is basically manipulating and grooming her away from Stefan after their violent encounter in the film.

In my story, it is a longer game, but Elizabeth does use the situation to win Valerie’s trust and take advantage of her vulnerability. What happens when someone is young and in love and invests this whole energy into a risky business of a person that doesn’t pay off, or turn out the way they think? They panic, and seek someone who knows, or seems to know what the deal might be. And while Stefan does have Dominant, and sadistic tendencies, he does share in the fact that he is bisexual — just as the female characters all seem to be. In the film, he associates gender with a power dynamic: he is a submissive or subordinate partner to his male partner at Chilton Manor, while he chafes under as he has other needs, and inherently believes that a man should be dominant over a woman. That chauvinism is there. However, in the scene in the lounge he does give into the Countess’ sensual domination — whether supernatural, or not.

Elizabeth can read Stefan. You can also interpret this as she talked with Valerie about him. And when someone trying to still feel something, to keep experiencing pleasure, can get more than one good thing, they will. Stefan has the tendencies towards sadism, but Elizabeth has learned it, and it is telling that he calls his partner in England “Mother” but the film Elizabeth wraps her arms around him, and in my fiction she ends up taking the control that he wants to give.

There are other elements that I didn’t plan that turned out well, such as Ilona’s eventual fate. I’ve been reading Clive Barker’s Imajica recently, and the novel begins with a theory of fiction in which there is only room for “three players” in a narrative: be they characters, or themes and three it becomes: though whether or not it will become two, then one like in the film isn’t clear by the end of my narrative. This riff or modification of Aristotle’s Poetics aside, it works out well, especially in using the Chekhov’s gun objects from the film: the razor that Stefan accidentally cuts himself with at the beginning of the story, and Ilona’s pearl necklace. The first item had already been there, and gets used in a different way in the film whereas I worked the necklace in differently.

Originally, I was going to have Ilona drop the necklace when leaving Stefan and Valerie’s honeymoon suite:

In her haste, in her stride to leave, Ilona drops the pearl necklace onto the floor. It snaps, spilling every ivory bead, each one rolling away, releasing them into the shadows gathered under the bed. 

However, there is no way she would have accidentally destroyed that necklace. It is a good image, and excellent foreshadowing, but I found a place where it fits far better, and used more than it was in the film. I had even used a third-person limited Stefan perspective that I didn’t end up using where he compares Ilona’s teeth to the pearls:

Stefan feels her watching him as he showers.

The weight of what happened before, with Valerie, hasn’t left him. Something, after Ilona however, feels more coiled. He turns around to see her. In the light of the bathroom, he sees her luscious lips, parted, and her teeth — paler than the pearls that were around her neck, dashed onto the floor like the rest of the room by his hand — exposed.

It is a good paragraph, as well, but in the end I used Ilona’s perspective instead and moved the pearls reference downward, and then away from there to her denouement in the bathtub of her’s and Elizabeth’s suite.

I don’t really know what else to add to this behind the scenes, or backstage look at my literary homage to Daughters of Darkness except I think that if I had to explain how the title works beyond it being a gender-bent version of the English title, it would go a little something like this.

Basically, Stefan who claims to be from Chilton Manor is part of an unofficial and illegal relationship with a more powerful man who stays in his estate and calls himself “Mother.” Valerie wants to protect him and be his wife but she’s basically young and with little substance beyond what she can become. Ilona, who seduces him, is dressed in black and wishes to be free, already resigned to what happens to her with moments of defiance — like him — and when she touches his face and hair, she almost seems to see a reflection of herself except so much younger. And Elizabeth, who plays with him and his wife, is an older feminine version of what he is, and what he could be. But like the shadow of shadows, he is always going to be tethered to something: his partner, his idea of what a man should be, the Countess, his sexual desires, and his unacknowledged needs. Originally, I was going to have the story end where he and Valerie almost touch fingers after the Countess claims them, after he is turned on the memory of Ilona’s final fate. But I needed to have Elizabeth behind them with, yes, that gimmicky black raincoat that looks like a vampire cape or the wings of a bat. It mirrors what Valerie, or the form of Valerie, does at the end of the film with that couple she meets after this is all said and done.

Stefan may have a different existence in this story, in this alternate ending, but he is still a shadow. He is still subordinate to someone else. He is still a slave to his passions. The difference? He knows it now. And he has died for them: just in a different way.

I hope liked this look into the bloody mess of my creative process, and that I will see you all for the next experiment.