Representation of Transgressive Female Desire in ‘Daughter of Darkness’

Paul Mazey
Paul Mazey

The British film ‘Daughter of Darkness’ (1948) is remarkable in the way it depicts its female protagonist. Not only is she presented as a psychologically complex character who is both a serial killer and a victim of her own dark desires, but her unbridled sexuality is expressed in a surprisingly forthright manner.

In a break with the traditions of 1940s British Gothic melodrama films, she is neither an innocent young girl used by powerful men, in the manner of Caroline (Jean Simmons) in Uncle Silas (1947), nor is she a villainous woman who, in the pursuit of pleasure and comfort, scandalises the conventions of the period, as Barbara (Margaret Lockwood) does in ‘The Wicked Lady’ (1945).

With the added immediacy of a contemporary time-frame, ‘Daughter of Darkness’ presents an exploration of the repression and desire of its lead character with recourse to the modes of Gothic melodrama and Gothic horror.

‘Melodrama’ and ‘Gothic’ both evade clear definition as cinematic terms owing to their varied evolution through literary and theatrical traditions.

As a theatrical form, melodrama is characterised by ‘a structure based on moral polarities, an appeal to excitement and the emotions’ (Barefoot 1994: 95).

In cinema, the wider usage of the term has distilled primarily into a description of forms that prioritise feelings and emotion, typically in films aimed at a female audience, with female protagonists and concerns (Gledhill 1987: 33).

When considering the problem of defining the Gothic, David Punter notes that, in literature, elements of a Gothic style emerge in a range of literary traditions (1980: 403).

In film, Heidi Kaye similarly finds that Gothic elements have both “crept into filmic genres” and “spawned a brood of side genres” that embrace “anything dealing with the supernatural or nightmarish fears” (2012: 180).

Broadly, scholars agree that the Gothic in the film is characterised by a mise-en-scène “based around archetypal settings and characters, familiar visual signifiers and narrative codes” (Carver 2013: 237).

Drawing on the iconography established in Gothic fiction of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries, these encompass “dank crypts, rugged landscapes and forbidding castles populated by persecuted heroines, satanic villains, madmen, fatal women, vampires, doppelgängers and werewolves” (Rigby 2015: 13).

Characters tend to be haunted by secrets, and tension may arise from a play between competing rational and irrational explanations of narrative events (Hogle 2002: 2; Carver 2013: 237).

A further distinction exists between Gothic and horror, although there is much overlap between the two. Gothic is essentially a mode of suggestion, of potentially irrational fear, whereas horror depicts onscreen what is feared, makes it explicit and renders our fear of it rational (Kavka 2002: 226–27; Van Elferen 2012: 36).

With their historical antecedents in literary and theatrical forms, both melodrama and the Gothic may be understood in cinema as cultural styles or modes not limited to specific generic categories.

In this article, I will examine how ‘Daughter of Darkness’ combines elements drawn from both Gothic melodrama and Gothic horror modes to paint a picture of transgressive female sexuality and to complicate the straightforward categorisation of the film’s protagonist.

Through a close textual analysis of the film’s narrative elements, its cinematography, and its musical score, I will explore how the film draws together diverse elements to create its unsettling effects. In particular, I will demonstrate how these elements work to draw the film’s eponymous anti-heroine away from the conventions of female-centred Gothic melodrama and towards Gothic horror.

The hybrid nature of ‘Daughter of Darkness’ is evident in its narrative. The film’s plot suggests Gothic melodrama in its focus on the disturbed servant girl Emmy Baudine (Siobhán McKenna) while its darker events draw in the trappings of Gothic horror.

Emmy is driven to murder the men she seduces and then, in order to restore her equilibrium, she plays the church organ in the dead of night.

She is ostracised by the women in her village in Ireland, who complain to the priest that she is peculiar and that she unsettles the men. After a travelling carnival boxer, Dan (Maxwell Reed), tries to seduce her, Emmy scars his face with her nails.

The priest bows to local pressure to send Emmy away and arranges a job for her on a farm in Yorkshire. Here she is popular with the men although her employer Bess (Anne Crawford) instinctively mistrusts her. When the carnival arrives in Yorkshire, Dan pursues her again and becomes her first victim. When the murders continue, Bess becomes increasingly suspicious of Emmy and her nocturnal activities.

Emmy seduces and kills two further men before she is killed violently by Dan’s abandoned Alsatian dog, who has been stalking the moors.

Although the denouement brings poetic justice, it does not offer an uncomplicated case of villainy punished, as the film endows Emmy with an affecting sense of human frailty, and of being a victim herself.

Siobhán McKenna’s performance resists melodramatic excess and consequently she imbues her character with a complex psychology that inspires sympathy.

‘Daughter of Darkness’ was McKenna’s first principal role and only her second film, after a brief appearance in the adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel ‘Hungry Hill’ (1947).

Primarily a respected stage actress, she went on to appear in several more films, notably as the Virgin Mary in the biblical epic ‘King of Kings’ (1961), and as Anna in ‘Doctor Zhivago’ (1965).

Her casting in ‘Daughter of Darkness’ was facilitated in screenwriter Max Catto’s adaptation of his own successful 1938 play, ‘They Walk Alone’, by a change in Emmy’s origin from Cornwall to Ireland. This alteration heightens the sense of Emmy as an outsider, distanced from her English employers both by her nationality and by her implied Catholicism.

McKenna’s detailed and nuanced performance contributes to the believability of Emmy as a character and promotes sympathy for her troubled existence.

The actress brings a brooding intensity to her portrayal, which renders Emmy as much a victim of her dark desires and darker actions as her hapless suitors. “She certainly can act” was the verdict of the Monthly Film Bulletin reviewer in 1948, and the film’s pressbook provides a range of similarly positive reviews for McKenna’s contribution, which is clearly regarded as a strong selling point for the film.

McKenna’s performance is in a completely different register to the brisk energy of the wicked women in the period Gothic melodramas from Gainsborough who, in contrast, seems to take such pleasure in their amoral behaviour, at a safe remove from the contemporary frame. The tone and subtlety of McKenna’s performance in ‘Daughter of Darkness’ sets the film apart from the melodramas of the time.

As the film moves away from Gothic melodrama, it moves towards Gothic horror. Its titles appear over a sequence of highly stylised pencil drawings in which Brian MacFarlane finds a “visual promise of Gothic excess” (1999: 84).

This succession of images previews the darker aspects of the film, and it maintains its focus on Emmy’s experience. It begins with dramatic cloudscapes streaking night skies, progressively closer views of a church with gravestone crosses rising on the horizon alongside silhouetted leafless trees, then the image of Emmy behind McKenna’s credit with her face covered by curls of hair against a swirling seascape. Next, a sharply canted image of skeletal hands at an organ keyboard, the head of a dog, carnival lights and tents, then a swirling vortex of gravestone crosses, hands, a face and an eye.

These graphic images engage with the “distinct visual codes” that for Kavka typify the Gothic film, notably the “dark cemetery dotted with crosses and gnarled, bare branches” (2002: 210).

The images also foreshadow the static frames that were a recurring feature in the titles of Hammer films, each depicting an isolated hilltop castle set in a rugged landscape. These were often model or effects shots, although an early example for ‘The Brides of Dracula’ (1960), which makes use of a painted scene with stylised dark clouds, spindly black branches in the foreground and a near monochrome colour palette, bears close comparison with the opening images of the earlier film.

The title sequence in ‘Daughter of Darkness’ is accompanied by pulsing orchestral music, in which agitated string figures are interrupted by the strike of a gong before the music grows increasingly jagged with percussive elements, pizzicato strings, and low brass, as though mirroring the disturbed state of Emmy’s mind.

The music calms as choral voices accompany drawings of the columns and the arched stained-glass window of a church, and as the titles end and the scene opens on a church interior, the choral singing continues, which is now understood as diegetic.

The images and the music of the title sequence evoke a Gothic atmosphere and establish the tone of what will follow. They offer a preview of the Gothic elements and motifs that will be developed in the narrative, as well as on the soundtrack and in the visual presentation of the film.

The Gothic atmosphere conjured in the title sequence is echoed in the chiaroscuro lighting of the director of photography Stanley Pavey. Pavey had worked his way up at Ealing Studios, and had assisted Douglas Slocombe with the lighting for their classic 1945 horror anthology ‘Dead of Night’.

In the opening scenes of ‘Daughter of Darkness’, Pavey turns the church into a shadowy space with stark contrasts between light and dark areas of the screen. Not only is Father Corcoran (Liam Redmond) surrounded by religious symbols — crosses, carvings, and plaster statues — but these are lit in a way that makes them stand out within the image.

As he sits at his desk, for example, the left third of the screen is dominated by an ornate carved cross placed in front of him, almost silhouetted against the pale wall behind, while on the right of the screen stands a figure of St. Christopher holding the infant Christ, whose fair hair and white clothing shine against the dark background.

In the next shot he is filmed from below in a tighter framing. High on the wall behind him is a plaster statue of Christ with arms outstretched, placed at an angle and lit so that it casts a dark shadow against the pale wall which doubles the amount of space it occupies in the image.

In this way, Father Corcoran is hemmed in by religious symbols. These symbols act as a visual metaphor for the religious righteousness, which is usurped by the women who order him to send Emmy away. They also accentuate his impotence in the face of the moral propriety with which they justify their demands.

A Catholic cross on the mantelpiece and a statue on a wall shelf are similarly magnified and thrown into relief by careful lighting. The framing and cinematography accentuate the presence of the abundant religious symbols, and contribute to a Gothic ambience by representing visually the oppressive nature of the constraints imposed by the church.

The overbearing Gothic atmosphere of the church is compounded by the organ music which enters the soundtrack and is quickly associated with Emmy.

Father Corcoran hears the ominous strains of the organ that increase in volume as, filmed from above, he makes his way through the empty church, now in near obscurity.

A sidelight casts long shadows of the high pew ends and Father Corcoran’s robed figure on the stone floor as he strides towards the organ loft. The image cuts to Emmy’s hands at the organ keyboard, and the camera slowly moves up her gently swaying body to reveal her expression of complete absorption. She leans back slightly, her head tilted to one side, and dark shadows fall over her face as she gazes straight ahead of her.

For the female musician in melodrama films, Heather Laing has distinguished between what she terms “conventional performance” and “personal performance”. These two types of performance tend to be filmed differently.

Conventional performances place an emphasis on the technical accomplishment of the female musician, with shots that illustrate her concentration on the instrument and the technical dexterity of her hands as they move across the keyboard.

In personal performances, the camera moves to a closer framing of the woman’s “fixed, apparently unseeing stare into the middle distance”, and in doing so may remove the instrument from the frame (2007: 106). This focuses attention on the emotional experience of the female musician.

Emmy’s playing is clearly conveyed as personal performance, and the intensity of her engagement in the music hints at her psychological disturbance.

Although she is not presented as a melodrama heroine, Emmy’s apparent loss of herself while playing music connects her to such typical examples of personal performances as Phyllis Calvert in ‘Madonna of the Seven Moons’ (1944), whose split personality is prompted by musical stimuli, and Margaret Lockwood in ‘A Place of One’s Own’ (1945), who is the victim of a ghostly possession while at the keyboard.

Like Emmy, both of these characters are particularly sensitive to music. However, Emmy’s musicianship complicates the straightforward notions of female gentility and respectability that musical accomplishment often connotes in melodramas of this era. Although her playing is similarly framed to foreground her personal experience of it, Emmy is further separated from the domestic piano-playing melodrama heroines by the significant religious associations and Gothic potential of her instrument — the organ.

The association of the organ with the church amplifies the transgressive nature of Emmy’s behaviour. As the sequence described above continues, Father Corcoran enters the organ loft and, clearly disapproving, asks Emmy what has got into her. “I’m always like this when the organ plays”, she replies, indicating her own detachment from her actions, as though someone else were playing the music.

She becomes more distressed and intense and exclaims “something terrible rises up in me and I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe!” Both MacFarlane (1999: 83) and Jonathan Rigby (2015: 38) note that this line is a remarkably frank acknowledgement of female sexual desire for a film of this era.

It is the more transgressive for being spoken to the priest, whose demeanour suggests he may be one of the men unsettled by her. Emmy’s organ playing is not only replete with Freudian undertones, in that it satisfies a desire in her that the men she seduces fail to, but it also renders her actions doubly transgressive because of the instrument’s association with the church.

Emmy’s use of the organ to calm herself after her murderous episodes is as sacrilegious as its use in Hammer’s ‘Twins of Evil’ (1971) to accompany a quasi-satanic rite. As in the latter film, the organ brings to Emmy’s behaviour a ritualistic quality, and suggests a blasphemous parody of a religious ceremony.

For Emmy, the church represents both a repressive force that dictates a moral code she is unable to adhere to, and a restorative sanctuary in which she seeks absolution for her crimes. Her organ-playing ritual resembles a twisted confessional.

As a musical signifier for the church, the organ represents the guardian of the moral codes which Emmy’s episodes of murderous nymphomania violate, and her use of the church organ to restore her equilibrium profanes its sacred association, and thus compounds the transgressive nature of her crimes.

Furthermore, Emmy is a rare example in film of a female organist whose playing is more than incidental to her character. While the organ itself is something of a cliché in horror film music (Donnelly 2005: 91; McEvoy 2013: 460), perhaps owing to the eerily Gothic ambience its sound can conjure,1 Julie Brown (2010: 5) identifies the usual horror film organist as a “weird male loner” figure with megalomaniac tendencies, typified by the title character in adaptations of Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera.

This convention is subverted in the main subject of Brown’s article, Carnival of Souls (1962), an independent American production which has similarities to ‘Daughter of Darkness’ in that both feature young and attractive female organists.

Both films additionally include organ music in the contrasting settings of the church and the fairground, an aspect highlighted in ‘Daughter of Darkness’ by the repeated image of the carnival organ, with its carved and painted figures of scantily clad women, decorative features, and funnel-ended pipes garishly lit by bare lightbulbs.

The significance of the organ, and its connection to Emmy, is confirmed when this image bookends the scenes of her at the fair with Dan in Ireland. The sequence begins with a montage of the couple enjoying the rides and attractions, and ends when Dan, having walked Emmy away to the seclusion of a neighbouring field, forces himself on her.

After Emmy scratches his face, his confused cries fade into the music of the fairground organ, mingled with the sounds of the carnival, as the camera whip pans back to its image. When the fair arrives in Yorkshire, and Emmy encounters Dan again, the incident is recalled solely by the music of the organ on the soundtrack.

‘Daughter of Darkness’ and ‘Carnival of Souls’ differ in the way that organ music is used on their soundtracks. Whereas it is the only instrument in Gene Moore’s score for ‘Carnival of Souls’, in ‘Daughter of Darkness’ the organ remains a purely diegetic presence, alongside a non-diegetic orchestral score composed by Clifton Parker.

The score for ‘Daughter of Darkness’ had originally been commissioned from film composer William Alwyn, who was drawn to projects that enabled him to use his knowledge of Irish music. Ian Johnson notes that Alwyn had “passed on the contract”, along with one for a documentary film, to Clifton Parker (2005: 172).

Parker, a prolific composer for theatre and film during the 1940s and 1950s, was most associated with the more masculine territory of thrillers, war films and adventure subjects. He provided scores for Walt Disney’s live-action ‘Treasure Island’ and the prisoner-of-war film ‘The Wooden Horse’, both in 1950.

He also went on to work in Gothic horror with his music for Jacques Tourneur’s 1957 film ‘Night of the Demon’, and the 1961 Hammer thriller ‘Taste of Fear’.

It is significant that even when Parker works within the area of melodrama, for instance, in his scores for ‘When the Bough Breaks’ (1947), a Gainsborough production concerning illegitimacy and adoption, and ‘Blanche Fury’ (1948), a Technicolor Gothic melodrama in the Gainsborough mould, he does not use music in what might be termed a melodramatic mode, that is, music which acts as a barometer for the emotions of the main female character, that grants us a privileged access to her subjectivity or stands in for an excess of restrained emotion.

In his score for ‘Daughter of Darkness’, Parker similarly resists using music in a way which might promote identification and empathy with the film’s female protagonist.

Audience sympathy may rest with the troubled Emmy, although the score does not encourage this response. The music does not enter the melodramatic mode, and instead, Parker adopts musical techniques that are more associated with the horror film.

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