Last of the Monster Kids

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Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Director Report Card: Stuart Gordon (1990)

6. Daughter of Darkness

In the time between “Robot Jox's” completion and its release, Stuart Gordon was clearly looking for work. Gordon doesn't have a story credit on several of his features. However, the director managed to inject his personality even into hired gigs like “Dolls.” “Daughter of Darkness,” meanwhile, feels like Stuart Gordon in work-for-hire mode. The film was made for television, airing on CBS in January of 1990. I don't know why the network chose this time to air a generic vampire movie. All these factors combine to make “Daughter of Darkness” probably Gordon's most overlooked film.

Katherine Thatcher's mother has passed away recently. Katherine has lived her whole life, hearing about her mysterious father, a native to Romania. She travels to the Eastern European country in hopes of uncovering her dad, or at least finding information about him. Her journey finds her butting heads with the country's fascist government, a pushy American embassy worker, and a strange glassblower. Soon enough, Katherine learns that glassblower is her father... And he's also a vampire. In fact, there's an entire vampire underground in Romania and they hope to introduce Katherine into their ranks.

Despite having a cinematic filmmaker behind the camera, “Daughter of Darkness” ends up feeling like a standard television production. The typically small TV budget is most apparent in the film's scope. The story doesn't really get rolling until about half-way through the short ninety-minute run time. The first half, mostly devoted to Katherine going from location to location, following dead ends concerning her dad, drags horribly. Once the plot actually begins to move in the second half, the story confines itself mostly to a series of underground tunnels. The same few sets – indistinct stone hallways – are utilized throughout the last third. All in all, it's quite apparent how little money Gordon had to work with on “Daughter of Darkness.”

Vampires are probably the most prominent creatures in all of the horror genre, rivaled only by the zombie. “Daughter of Darkness” would follow a number of vampire films in the mid-to-late eighties. The film would also proceed the romantic vampire subculture that would really explode later in the decade. Like those stories, “Daughter of Darkness” features sexy male vampires, seducing female victims that are helpless to resist them. Their bites cause them to writhe in ecstasy. There's also an underground community of vampires, featuring political shake-ups and power plays among the bloodsuckers. “Daughters of Darkness” might have been something potentially new-ish in 1990. In 2017, it comes off as an especially contrived collection of cliches.

On one hand, I guess it makes sense to recruit horror directors for television. They are, after all, used to working with small budgets and tight schedules. Yet, considering how legendarily gory his features are, Stuart Gordon seems like an odd choice for TV. Naturally, network standards-and-practices prevents Gordon from making “Daughters of Darkness” a gore-fest. There's a little blood, a small amount of scorched flesh, and some PG-rated hanky panky. Supposedly an R-rated cut of the film exists somewhere, featuring some nudity from actress Kati Rak. As far as I can tell, this version isn't currently available. Thus, “Daughter of Darkness” is a surprisingly bloodless, fleshless, de-fanged vampire movie.

There is, however, one or two neat things about the film. “Daughter of Darkness'” sole contribution to the vampire mythos concerns how the undead beings drink their blood. Instead of biting necks with fangs, they have lamprey-like suckers on the end of their tongues. That's a neat touch and recalls the body horror Gordon incorporated into “From Beyond.” You can also see hints of this in a nightmare sequence featuring faceless men in black robes. Those same dream scenes see Gordon utilize some of his POV shots. The film also makes the most of the actual Bucharest setting. There's a focus on the actual statues that line the city, which creatures some mildly diverting atmosphere.

Stuart Gordon hadn't worked with too many real movie stars up to this point. Guy Rolfe was probably the biggest name that had appeared in his films. “Daughter of Darkness” does have two recognizable faces in the cast. Mia Sara, a few years out from her breakthrough role in “Ferris Bueller's Day Off,” stars as Katherine. Sara's girl next door charms are well-suited to the part, an every-woman school teacher slowly descending into a world of darkness. However, Sara's Katherine remains innocent even as she embraces more of her vampiric heritage. This makes her character arc rather flat. Sara's affable personality only goes so far. As the story lurches through its last act, narrative excuses being made to keep Katherine in Romania, Sara begins to seem visibly bored.

The other big name in “Daughter of Darkness” is Anthony Perkins. By this point, Perkins was resigned to his status as a horror icon, appearing in features like “Edge of Sanity,” “Destroyer,” and “I'm Dangerous Tonight.” Later that same year, he would reprise his role of Norman Bates for the fourth time. Apparently Perkins and Gordon's working relationship was so good that he asked Gordon to direct “Psycho IV,” a job Gordon eventually turned down. As Prince Constantine, Perkins gets to play the only vampire in his long career. Aside from a ridiculous accent, that sounds more Russian than Romanian, Perkins is fine in the part. He has no issue delivering threatening exposition. He does well while the character is being tortured. His chemistry with Sara is okay. But, mostly, it's not a very memorable performance.

“Daughter of Darkness'” somewhat convoluted story makes room for numerous supporting characters. Jack Coleman appears as Devlin, the U.S. embassy agent that helps Katherine on her mission. Coleman is decent in the part but the character is smugly written, making his eventual romance with Sara seem especially random. Robert Reynolds goes way over the top as Grigore, the villainous vampire vying for control of the community with Perkins. Of the minor cast members, there's only one I really like. That's Max, the cab driver, who makes repeated and increasingly unlikely references to his family history. Deszo Garas is amusing but, unfortunately, his likable character eventually takes a deeply unsatisfying turn.

You might assume that, like many TV movies, “Daughter of Darkness” was meant to launch a series. After all, the early nineties brought several vampire-themed TV shows, like “Forever Knight” and a short-lived “Dark Shadows” revival. However, “Daughter of Darkness” ends on a definite note, it's story concluding with no dangling plot threads. So I guess this really was just a random Movie of the Week. The film has been released on home media several times but “Daughter of Darkness'” mediocrity prevents it from gaining the same cult following that greeted most of Gordon's other films. [Grade: C]

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