31+ Days of Horror. 33 Horror Movies. 33 Reviews. Hooptober Challenges and Bonus Tasks.
View my 2016 Cinema Shame/Hoop-Tober Watch Pile Shame-a-thon Statement here.
Nature of Shame:
Unseen Universal Horror
Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist:
Decade – 1930’s
The Advance Word: Uh. Dracula sequel. About his daughter maybe? That’s my guess anyway. Though, after She-Wolf of London, I take nothing for granted.
#15. Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
Any assessor of Dracula’s Daughter must approach the film from three distinct angles. First, at face value. Dracula’s Daughter is a toothless lark of a “sequel.” The film talks too much and shows too little to engage the viewer at the level of primordial terror. Despite the sluggish pacing of Dracula (1931), Bela Lugosi’s Dracula still conveyed a consistent sense of dread.
The second angle of assessment, as with any of these films from the Universal horror cycle, lies in the success of the film’s visuals. These films no longer maintain the power of fright. They’ve long since assumed the role of spectacle. Chiaroscuro and fascinating gothic imagery.
Dracula’s Daughter differs from most of the horror pictures of its day because it places a woman in the central role (we shall not return to the silly She-Wolf of London — that trifle has no bearing on this conversation). As a result, we have the benefit of viewing the film in the context the entire Universal horror cycle. How does foregrounding a woman change the film’s approach to the “monstrous”?
I want to consider Gloria Holden herself. Holden assumes the “Dracula” role in this sequel and reportedly wanted nothing to do with the role. She’d just signed a new contract with Universal and Carl Laemmle immediately thrust the actress into Dracula’s Daughter as Countess Marya Zaleska. It was common to view these horror films as lesser art, but Holden had also seen how playing Dracula had typecast Bela Lugosi. With this in mind, it’s no stretch to view Holden’s performance as the product of an actress seething with distaste.
If Holden’s low opinion of the role had indeed seeped into her performance, this trait only benefitted her character. Countess Marya longs to be free from the curse of Dracula. She presumes that burning the body of Count Dracula will cause her to become human. (Sidenote: the funeral pyre marks the only appearance or Lugosi in the film — he contributed only his visage via a wax cast, despite originally being cast in the film.) When she does not return to the land of the living, she becomes hateful, desperate and disillusioned. An ideal situation for an actress that didn’t want to be there in the first place. Happy accidents.
Director Lambert Hillyer (director of the first Batman serial) cloaked Holden in shadow, embracing the unique contours of her porcelain face. Holden’s Countess Marya Zaleska drips with gothic sexuality. Viewing the film as an exploration of repressed female sexuality or even homosexuality creates layers of intrigue. Even the film’s cornball poster tagline (see above) suggests a kind of taboo sexuality: “She gives you that weird feeling!” (Emphasis on “weird” my own.)
To explore my homosexuality observation, I went to Google and typed in “Dracula’s Daughter homosexuality.” Clearly, I’m not alone with this bit of theorizing. In fact, I’m just plain late to the party. Anne Rice named a bar in he novel Queen of the Damned after the film, as an homage to homoerotic vampirism. Even the typically dense Joseph Breen of the Production Code Administration noted the troublesome subtext of a specific scene between the Countess and a woman she coerces into modeling for her. (She’s a painter, you see.) The film’s been featured in books on queer cinema. Even contemporary reviews cited Zaleska’s notable eye for young girls. I’m barely scratching the surface on the published material discussing this matter. I didn’t think I’d had an original thought, but goddamn, Internet, thanks for making me feel remedial.
During my viewing of Dracula’s Daughter, I couldn’t help but think of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, the I Ching of female vampirism, which provided the springboard for films such as Hammer’s The Vampire Lovers and Dreyer’s Vampyr (though Dreyer’s film eliminates all sexual connotations). The connection appears purely superficial. Carmilla stands out as the first example of the lesbian vampire trope in literature, Dracula’s Daughter as the first in cinema.
I don’t doubt that Hillyer took advantage of the titillating subtext; however, Dracula’s Daughter resorts to a sort of button-down version of lesbianism in the face of certain Production Code censorship and culturally accepted notions of gender identity.
Dracula’s Daughter never shows the Countess in the act of vampirism. Holden’s vampire never advances upon her prey for a nibble. She merely entraps. Predation, but never the kill. While Lugosi’s Dracula also never drank blood on screen, the actor inhabited a monster that most surely partook off-screen. Holden inhabits a bored noblewoman of leisure. Women weren’t killers. Women were lovers. And sexual women were not to be openly discussed.
Social constraints also dictated that a man couldn’t have been the prey of a female vampire. Women could be in distress. Women could be victims. Dracula’s Daughter, by placing a female as the central vampire, forced itself into the realm of de facto queer cinema. Society dictated that although women could be predators, they could also only prey on other women. The male lead, psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger), becomes Countess Zaleska’s commodity, hope for a cure to her vampirism (aka lesbianism), but never the subject of her predation.
Before I start in on that last connection about “curing homosexuality” through psychiatry, I’m going to bring this bit of dialogue to a close.
Dracula’s Daughter offers so much food for thought during it’s meager 72 minute runtime that you’ll refuse the dessert course. Gloria Holden’s timeless beauty and drastic chiaroscuro prove to be a match made in cinematic heaven. Watch Dracula’s Daughter for the stunning visuals, observe the ways that the film toys with the notion of homosexuality and specifically female homosexuality. The uneven and sometimes clunky narrative doesn’t do the film itself any favors.
30Hz Movie Rating:
DVD Verdict: I need to see this on Blu-ray. While the print appears to be great shape on this Dracula: Complete Legacy Collection set, the deep blacks would benefit from greater 1080p detail. It should be a stunner.
Availability: Dracula’s Daughter is available on the Complete Legacy Collection DVD set. I assume a Blu-ray version will follow sometime around this time next year.
Earlier 2016 31 Days of Horror entries: #1. Vampyros Lesbos / #2. A Chinese Ghost Story / #3. The Haunting of Morella / #4. Delirium (1972) / #5. A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin / #6. She-Wolf of London / #7. Son of Frankenstein / #8. Killerfish / #9. The Bride of Re-Animator / #10. A Bay of Blood / #11. The Seventh Victim / #12. The Fly (1958) / #13. The Fly (1986) / #14. Deep Red