Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Vampires 101: Dracula's Daughter (1936)

Note: The following is a re-post for my other (presently dormant) blog, SILVER SCREAM.

Starring: Otto Kruger, Gloria Holden, Marguerite Churchill, Edward Van Sloan, Gilbert Emery and Irving Pichel
Directed by Lambert Hillyer 

WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT, ALFIE? Prof. Abraham Van Helsing recruits a former pupil to defend him against charges of murder in the deaths of Dracula and Renfield. While he admits to killing Dracula, he insists the slaying was necessary because the Transylvanian nobleman was actually a vampire. Rather that hiring an attorney, he enlists the aid of psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey Garth to prove his innocence. Meanwhile, the count's daughter, Marya Zaleska, steals the body of Dracula from Scotland Yard and destroys it, hoping it will break the chain of her family's curse. She soon learns that her father's death has not changed her fortunes and seeks Garth's help to break her spell of vampirism.


WHAT'S IT REALLY ABOUT? Sex. More specifically, gay sex. This is Universal's famous "lesbian vampire movie," but keep your pants on ... it's not exactly Girls Gone Wild. While it's no more salacious than its predecessor, the subtext of DRACULA'S DAUGHTER isn't exactly subtle. Zaleska is cursed by impulses she can barely control and turns to modern psychology for help. And my "modern," I mean "hopelessly antiquated." The medicine on display in this film is as out-of-date as the superstitions on display, making it almost a battle of ignorances among the main characters. DRACULA'S DAUGHTER gets bonus points for never referencing Sigmund Freud, though.

What's more interesting is that the movie uses the idea of sexual urges almost interchangeably with the occult. It's a novel idea because both concepts reach out to us from invisible realms and physically affect the world despite having no physical presences of their own. When Zaleska turns to Garth for help, it's because she's trying to repress those urges. Occult superstitions demand that her only salvation is death; but science suggests that her behaviors can be adjusted to allow for proper socialization and let her live as a "real woman," whatever the hell that means. It's about as rational an idea as James Bond fucking the gay out of Pussy Galore, but DRACULA'S DAUGHTER suggests that hardline conservatism isn't our only option for dealing with "freaks." It's not the most enlightened point of view, but it was 1936.

WHY ARE WE STILL TALKING ABOUT THIS MOVIE? Barnabas Collins is credited as the first "sympathetic vampire," but DRACULA'S DAUGHTER beat him to the punch by three decades. Countess Zaleska is the not only the first cinematic vampire to resent her own condition, but the first to seek out a scientific "cure," as well. For a movie about vampires, the occult plays little role in the film. Marya Zaleska is a self-hating sexual predator whose "curse" might be a garden variety mental illness. In many ways, she's got more in common with Larry Talbot in THE WOLF MAN than with DRACULA.

The movie's tone is also quite different from Universal's other monster movies. The first two acts play like a traditional film noir, with the roles of Jeffrey Garth and his assistant Janet heavily inspired by William Powell and Myrna Loy in THE THIN MAN. Garth isn't that interesting of a character, by Marguerite Churchill as his playful assistant is a joy to watch. The movie comes to life whenever she's on screen, even if most of those scenes are more comedy than horror.

Irving Pichel as Sandor is also magnetically creepy. Equal parts Lon Chaney Jr and Lurch from THE ADDAMS FAMILY, Sandor has been working as Zaleska's henchman in hopes that she would "reward" him by turning him into a vampire. If Zaleska is the first sympathetic movie vampire, then Sandor is the first big screen character who ever wanted to become a vampire. He's a lot scarier than Zaleska because his motives are greedy and uncertain.

It's not until the movie's final act to we see any of the imagery usually associated with Universal's monster movies. Zaleska flees to Transylvania with Janet as a hostage. We briefly revisit Dracula's castle as the movie's dual tones collide: Garth, in Humphrey Bogart drag, mounts the stairs of Dracula's castle with a pistol in hand. Even though it's a short scene, it's one of the most compelling images to ever emerge from Universal's monster stable.

IS IT TIME TO STOP TALKING ABOUT THIS MOVIE? Gloria Holden isn't the most seductive leading lady that Hollywood ever produced. It's not that she's unattractive, but Holden comes across more like a repressed college professor than a destroyer of men/women. Her repressiveness is a serious hindrance for the movie because it demands its femme fatale be chaste. DRACULA'S DAUGHTER suffers from much of the same repressiveness of its title character.

There's also an ickyness to the movie's sexuality that comes across a lot more overtly rape-y than in DRACULA. Zaleska's first victim is a man she meets on the street, but we don't see the actual attack. The film spends a bit more time on her next victim, though, a homeless young woman lured back to her studio for a job as an artist's model. Zaleska plies her with wine and convinces her to take off her blouse. Zaleska becomes impatient and attacks the mostly nude woman, who is next seen being loaded (fully clothed) into the back of an ambulance. She later dies as Garth uses a "hypnosis machine" to dig into her memories to determine what had happened to her. "Consent" seems to be an unfamiliar word to both the heroes and villains of DRACULA'S DAUGHTER.

The movie also suffers from the same abbreviated ending as DRACULA. The film wants to be a psychological thriller and romantic comedy for its first two acts, but that's not what audiences want to see (then or now) from a movie like DRACULA'S DAUGHTER. When I watch a Universal monster movie about a vampire, I expect to see coffins and cobwebs sooner than the final reel.

Also, Van Helsing comes across like a smug douche. But that's neither here nor there.

VERDICT: DRACULA'S DAUGHTER is too great a cinematic curiosity to be dismissed. It's an oddity among Universal's other films in that it tries to rise about its pulpy roots, but it's not entirely successful in any of its efforts. And the idea of making a sequel to one of the most influential horror movies ever without porting over the title character took serious balls. DRACULA'S DAUGHTER is not a cheap looking movie, but it's a cheap concept because it pays only lip service to the original film without expanding much on its world. It's just another vampire movie that happens to have DRACULA in its title.



Anonymous said...

What about the 2nd cinematic/tv sympathetic, Webb Fallon, from The Vampire's Ghost? Don't skip that one!

Also talk about Baron & Baroness Meinster from The Brides of Dracula.

Cousin Barnabas said...

I LOVE The Brides of Dracula ... it's probably my favorite Hammer film.

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