Monday, April 27, 2015

Dracula's Daughter--The Reluctant Vampire

Gloria Holden as the title character.
An intriguing--not wholly successfully--sequel, Dracula's Daughter (1936) opens with Von Helsing being arrested for the murder of Count Dracula. The investigating Scotland Yard inspector understandably questions Von Helsing's tale of vampirism and recommends he retain a barrister. Instead, the Dutch professor turns to renowned psychiatrist Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger), a former pupil.

The Countess stalks her next victim.
Meanwhile, Dracula's corpse is stolen from police headquarters and cremated by his daughter. Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) believes that, with her father's destruction, "the spell is broken." Alas, she soon realizes that she still cannot resist her thirst for blood. A chance encounter with Garth convinces her that the psychiatrist may be able to help her overcome her "addiction." He agrees to treat her--without understanding the nature of her condition. Will Countess Dracula be cured? Will Von Helsing be executed for ridding the world of her evil father?

Good ideas abound in Dracula's Daughter, though the final screenplay by Garrett Fort fails to flesh out most of them out. Part of the problem can be attributed to the script's erratic development. When Universal Pictures first decided to mount a sequel to Dracula (1931), it approached screenwriter John L. Balderston, whose credits included the original, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and The Mummy (1932). Balderston's treatment featured an evil vampiress, the murder of a baby, and a man being devoured by a wolf. Universal rejected it.

The studio then turned to R.C. Sherriff (The Invisible Man, Goodbye Mr. Chips) and Finlay Peter Dunne to develop a new script that resurrected Dracula. Lugosi was even signed to reprise Count Dracula, with the other leads to have been played by a 25-year-old Jane Wyatt and Cesar Romero. Unfortunately, that project was shelved and Garrett Fort, one of the writers on Frankenstein (1931), was assigned to adapt Bram Stoker's short story "Dracula's Guest" (though the screenplay retains nothing from the story except for the presence of a female vampire).

Holden and Otto Kruger.
The introduction of a reluctant "monster" allows Dracula's Daughter to stand out from other 1930s monster films. It was a theme that Universal milked for more lasting success with 1940's The Wolf Man and its sequels, which featured Lon Chaney, Jr. as the unwilling werewolf. There's a distinct difference between the two, of course. Whereas Chaney transformed into a creature with pure animal instincts, Gloria Holden's vampire retains her human emotions at all times. She knows the distinction between right and wrong and constantly struggles to overcome her cravings for blood. She even goes to great lengths to secure Jeffrey Garth's aid.

Countess Zaleska's need for blood provides the film's most notorious scene. Her henchman Sandor (Irving Pichel) picks up a poor young woman from the docks and convinces the girl to pose for his mistress. Playing the part of an artist, the Countess tries to resist her insatiable appetite for blood as the girl exposes her bare shoulders and neck. Ultimately, the vampire gives in to her addiction (though we never see the bite). Based mostly on this scene, some critics have suggested the presence of an underlying lesbian theme in Dracula's Daughter (reinforced perhaps by the Countess's later abduction of Garth's female assistant).

Personally, I think this is an example of critics to trying to add context that just isn't there. Countess Zaleska follows and kills a male victim earlier in the film, so she clearly show no gender preference in her choice of victims. Her abduction of Garth's assistant (Marguerite Churchill) is motivated solely by her desire to get Garth to follow her back to Dracula's castle and join her in eternal life. I do admit that that the aforementioned scene is visually stunning, with the dark-haired Countess cloaked in black while her blonde-haired victim wears white slip.

There's a little bit of Caligari.
Gloria Holden is a commanding presence as the title character. It became her best-known role in a career that never lived up to its promising beginnings (supporting roles in The Life of Emile Zola and Test Pilot). Otto Kruger makes a serviceable hero, reminding me of one of those well-meaning scientists from a 1950s science fiction film. Edward Van Sloan, who character's name changed inexplicably from Van Helsing to Von Helsing, has little screen time. Marguerite Churchill plays her part as Garth's girl Friday mostly for comic relief, which adds nothing to the film. Irving Pichel's Sandor looks like an outcast from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Director Lambert Hillyer was a specialist in the Western genre, known best for helming William S. Hart silent films and "Wild Bill" Elliott "B" pictures. Surprisingly, he instills Dracula's Daughter with a genuinely chilling atmosphere. He also capitalizes on the fact that, unlike the Victorian-set Dracula, his sequel takes place in contemporary times. The (then) modern cars and traditionally foggy streets provide an effective visual contrast to one another.

Dracula's Daughter cost over $278,000, a hefty budget for Universal at the time. It failed to find an audience at the box office and faded into obscurity for several decades. By the 1970s, though, it had been revived by a small group of admirers; it was even shown in a film course I took at Indiana University. While Dracula's Daughter can't compare to the finest horrors of the 1930s, it's an interesting picture that's definitely worth 70 minutes of your time.


This post is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association's Fabulous Films of the 1930s Blogathon. Check out all the great posts by CMBA bloggers by clicking here.

16 comments:

  1. Think the lesbian subtext is intentional. Universal certainly was aware of vampirism=sex. Dracula's never seen putting the bite on Renfield. Both films carried a "strange love" tag in their advertising.

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  2. I love a review that actually does its research and brings to light the environment that the film was made in, since so many are unaware of the politics of Hollywood back in the day. Great review.

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  3. Rick, great background story on the making of the film. Like Bill, I too feel the lesbian subtext was intentional. It's been quite a while since I have seen the film but I remember liking it a lot. I thought Gloria Holden was excellent.

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  4. Forgot to mention that I liked the modern day aspect to the film thought that was a great touch.

    John Greco

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  5. I have read a "meh" couple of reviews of this film, but yours is the one that's sold me on it. It may have its flaws but, like you say, it definitely sounds like it's worth 70 minutes. Thanks!

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  6. I like the chilly and ethereal atmosphere that is created for the story. It also cemented Gloria Holden in my mind. Now when I see her dark eyes I no longer wonder where I've seen that actress before. She is Dracula's Daughter.

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  7. I've never seen this one Rick. It's too bad the screenplay didn't make more of the opportunity of an interesting story possibility.I'll look for the opportunity to see it for Gloria Holden.

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  8. I've never seen this one Rick. It's too bad the screenplay didn't make more of the opportunity of an interesting story possibility.I'll look for the opportunity to see it for Gloria Holden.

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  9. Very nicely written, Rick. I sometimes find this amount of background information leading up to the actual discussion of the film tedious, but not here. Not only was it interesting to see how the concept of the film evolved, but you related it well to the final result. I saw this on TV a couple of times and I thought there was a definite hint of lesbianism. It might have been Holden herself, with her sharp rather mannish features and the enigmatic, almost suggestive looks she gave her female victims.

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  10. I also wanted to add that the film could have played up Von (Van) Helsing's predicament more. It would have interesting to see the Professor on trial for killing a vampire.

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  11. This sounds intriguing. Not typically a fan of the genre, but this looks like it's worth it:)

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  12. As Artie Johnson would say - verrrry interesting. Very nice post, Rick. It's amazing how the finished product rarely resembles the original idea, I'd love to see them film that screenplay with the evil vampiress, the murder of a baby and a man eaten by a wolf.

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  13. Fascinating! I like how you trace the development of this film and its many false starts. Thanks for a great post on an intriguing film!

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  14. Great review. I will have to see this one not as a Dracula fan but as a Lambert Hillyer devotee. ;-)

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  15. Good work on a less-celebrated movie that is, as you say, definitely worth a look. It's such a contrast to the Pre-Code horror films, you can really feel the chill of the rules, the censor breathing down their necks. The monster (accidentally) drowns little Maria in Frankenstein and murders little Frieda in Bride..., which of course was in '35 and so under strict Code enforcement, but the child murder was still allowed (although I gather several shots were cut and we never see her body). Some genres (screwball) really came into their own after the Code, but imo it took horror some years to figure out how to finagle their themes and effects without crossing the line... Anyway, thanks for a terrific post!

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  16. This is a fascinating review of a lesser known work. Gloria Holden communicates volumes with her expression. It is an interesting storyline, too, for the Countess to hope that she could escape the curse with the death of her father. Great post!

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