Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Dracula's Daughter (1936)

It took, incredibly, five years for Universal to come up with a sequel to their 1931 mega-hit Dracula. By the time Dracula's Daughter was ready for release in 1936, after seemingly endless script rewrites and production delays, Universal’s financial woes had come to a head and the Laemmles had lost control of the studio. Dracula's Daughter came in well over budget and well behind schedule. It was a very very expensive film (by Universal’s standards) and unfortunately much of the budget was wasted due to production delays and bad decisions. 

Dracula's Daughter was not a particularly lucky movie for Universal but it is an exceptionally intriguing sequel. This is not just a rehash of the original Dracula story. There are some original and provocative ideas. In some ways it can even be regarded as a more interesting film than Dracula.

The movie opens with Dracula having just been staked by Von Helsing (for some unknown reason the Van got changed to Von for the sequel). Von Helsing is still on the scene when the police arrive and he is duly charged with the murder of Count Dracula. 

Sir Basil Humphrey at Scotland Yard would prefer not to proceed with the charges against the mild-mannered professor but he has little choice. Advised to retain a good KC Von Helsing instead asks to be defended by his former student, eminent psychiatrist Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger). The case against Von Helsing pretty much collapses when Dracula’s body disappears.

Dracula’s body had been stolen by the Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden). She is the Dracula's daughter of the film’s title and she is referred to as such but it’s fairly clear that she is not the Count’s biological daughter (and there’s a further clue later in the movie that supports the theory that she’s not literally his daughter). While it’s not quite explicitly stated it’s obvious that she was one of the “brides” of Dracula. We are told that Dracula turned some of his victims into vampires by giving them his own blood to drink and presumably that was the case with Marya Zaleska.

What’s interesting is that the Countess is a very reluctant vampire. She hoped that Dracula’s death would free her from the curse of vampirism. She now hopes that perhaps psychiatry may be able to help her by giving her the strength and willpower to break the hold that Dracula still exerts over her from beyond the grave. This is the first movie to play with the idea that vampirism might perhaps be a form of psychiatric disorder, or possibly even a type of addiction, or that the link between a vampire and his “brides” might be more a matter of will than blood. These are ideas that have been explored countless times since in both literary and cinematic vampire tales but Dracula’s Daughter deserves credit for being the first to do so.

Garth suggests to the Countess that a person can often defeat a psychological craving by deliberately exposing himself to it. An alcoholic can learn to overcome his craving by surrounding himself with liquor. This suggestion by Garth turns out to be disastrously poor advice and has tragic consequences when the Countess tries it for herself.

The Countess is increasingly desperate to escape her vampiric destiny and she grows more and more convinced that only Garth can help her. If he won’t do so willingly then she knows how to force him to do her bidding. She will force him to follow her back to Transylvania. The stage is set for a dramatic climactic confrontation but unfortunately the ending is rather rushed.

Gloria Holden looks strange and exotic and in fact she looks exactly how one might imagine a lady vampire would look. She’s slightly and subtly strange in behaviour as well as appearance. Her performance is crucial and it works.

Irving Pichel is nicely creepy as her faithful manservant Sandor, who seems to understand the Countess’s predicament (and its hopelessness) more fully than she does. Otto Kruger is very professorial. Marguerite Churchill has fun as his spirited aristocratic assistant Janet. Edward Van Sloan is much too bland and much too dull as Von Helsing.

The movie’s visual style is impressive. Director Lambert Hillyer and cinematographer George Robinson don’t go overboard with the gothic trappings. This is a movie that moves back and forth (very effectively) between the gothic world of vampires and the modern world of science and technology.

The idea of vampirism being linked to sexuality, or more specifically to unhealthy or dangerous sexuality, had been around for as long as vampire tales had been around and it had been a central feature of most stories dealing with female vampires. The idea is there in Johann Ludwig Tieck’s 1800 story Wake Not the Dead, it’s there in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1797 poem Christabel and it’s there in a big way in Sheridan le Fanu’s classic 1871 novel Carmilla

Which of course brings us to the most notorious scene in Dracula's Daughter, in which a young woman is lured to the Countess’s studio to pose for a painting and is drained of blood almost to the point of death. The scene certainly does have the feel of a seduction, enhanced by the fact that the girl has partially undressed in order to pose. 

So is Dracula's Daughter the first lesbian vampire movie? Well, there’s there is that one notorious scene (and perhaps one other scene), but those scene certainly can be interpreted in that way without stretching things too far. There is however another possible interpretation. The Countess longs to escape from her unnatural existence and to live as a normal woman. As a result she might well feel considerable jealousy and hatred for other women who can live normal lives, and experience love in a normal non-vampiric way. Her attitude towards Janet tends to support the idea that she might be motivated by hatred of women rather than by lesbian passions.

It’s also obvious that when the Countess attacks a male victim the attack is to some extent a seduction.

My copy of this movie comes from the old Dracula Legacy Collection DVD set. It’s an excellent transfer. 

Dracula's Daughter is an intelligent, ambitious and somewhat complex horror film and is perhaps the most fascinating of Universal’s vampire movies. Highly recommended. 


tom j jones said...

I'm not even a vampire fan, and I really liked this movie!

Joseph Fragosa said...

I've always liked dracula movies. I have to check this one out. Great review.