I usually try to enjoy older films without subjecting them to rigors of contemporary sexual politics, as such framing can not only distort the film's intended meaning at the time it was produced, but contemporary notions about gender dynamics sometimes feel deliberately abstracted from reality, as they seek to project a new idealized mode of interaction rather than reflect and illuminate actualities. The little Irish drama Daughter of Darkness (1948) is an odd case, in that it seems to hint at forward-thinking ideas about female sexuality while being caught in a mindset that not only plays poorly today, but is too simplistic dramatically to satisfy any but the most reactionary viewers.
Siobhán McKenna stars as Emmy, a brooding young woman whose innate sensuality rankles the proper women of her Irish village; they disapprove not only of Emmy's effect on the village men but of some intangible quality which they sense in her presence and find inexplicably disturbing. Although she is prone to dark moods, manifested by her ominous late-night riffs on the church organ, Emmy tries to make the best of her pariah status, remaining friendly in the face of unearned scorn and wrestling with the dissonance of enjoying the flattery of male attention while dreading its one-note predictability.
This first section of Daughter of Darkness feels shockingly modern, at times, and is where the movie is at its most interesting, depicting its title character in a series of difficult positions projected upon her by prejudice and largely out of her control. Director Lance Comfort confronts the deceptively complex conflict matrix that builds around sexual urges in an old-fashioned environment that looks suspiciously at (and responds poorly to) female expression.
It's the latter half of Daughter of Darkness, however, where the unfortunately prolific word "problematic" arises. Comfort and writer Max Catto discard all of the seemingly intentional nuance developed during the first act and turn Emmy into an increasingly uninteresting figure of base instincts, such as might have been found in a simplistic sermon about the hazards of wanton women. This confirmation that Emmy is, indeed, a one-dimensional succubus, fully justifying the dread she inspires in annoying moral busybodies, not only feels like a betrayal of the character, but also undermines the film's primary appeal to contemporary viewers and confirms the worst expectations of an essentially backwards portrayal of women in film.
Still, Daughter of Darkness, despite its ultimate letdown, features several fine qualities, not the least of which is McKenna's offbeat presence in the title role. Before the script gets pulled out from under her, she presents a compelling mixture of allure, naivete, guile and perseverance; a compelling object of consternation from both men and women. Cinematographer Stanley Pavey works out some nice, stark moments of light and shadow which capably cross-pollinate from both the Gothic horror tones of the opening credits and its noirish femme fatale themes. It's fun to see Honor Blackman in her early 20s, a decade-and-half prior to becoming her own problematic figure as Pussy Galore in the James Bond adventure Goldfinger. And, even though its climactic turn is dispiriting, there is, nevertheless, some camp value in the shockingly extreme final act of Daughter of Darkness, especially in its abrupt final moment.