I am woman, hear me roar…
The Dracula universe is most definitely equal opportunity, and the sequel to the 1931 classic is 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter. Even though it might be nowhere near its predecessor in terms of quality or notoriety, it has some fun moments.
It opens where the 1931 film left off. Two policemen make their way into the basement of Dracula’s castle, only to find Renfield dead at the bottom of the stairs. Then Von Helsing (Edward van Sloan) emerges from the burial chamber and tells him he just drove a stake through Dracula’s heart. Naturally, the police don’t believe him and haul him to Scotland Yard in handcuffs.
Von Helsing is set to stand trial for his supposed crimes, but while he sits in custody, weird things start happening because of course they do. A mysterious woman infiltrates the jail where the bodies are held and hypnotizes Albert (Billy Bevan), the policeman on duty, into letting her see the body of Dracula. Albert’s fellow officers arrive hours later to find Albert comatose and Dracula’s body missing.
Meanwhile, the mysterious woman, whose name is Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) burns Dracula’s body in a swamp in the dead of night. She’s Dracula’s successor, but she doesn’t want to be. Now that he’s gone, she’s free. Or so she thinks.
However, the Countess can’t escape her past. She might play flowing melodies on her piano and think happily of her mother rocking her to sleep as a child and birds in the trees, but that’s not what her valet, Sandor (Irving Pichel) hears. Instead of birds, he hears bats. Instead of pretty lullabies, he hears evil. In the Countess’s eyes, he sees death. As if proving his point, the Countess’s next move is to seduce a man in evening dress. The doctors are baffled and wonder how this guy could suddenly die despite four blood transfusions. They’re also mystified about the two bite marks over his jugular.
While all of this is going on, Von Helsing waits for his trial. He doesn’t want a lawyer, but a psychologist, and he’s got one in mind: His longtime friend, Jeffrey (Otto Kruger). The man is an eminent figure, but he’s skeptical as to showing Von Helsing’s innocence via proving his sanity, and he’s certainly skeptical about vampires.
It’s right around this time that Jeffrey meets the Countess, who’s recently arrived in England from Hungary. She’s charming and sociable and no one could possibly expect her to be a vampire, right? Right?
When the Countess hears Jeffrey talking about treating diseases of the mind, she’s intrigued. If the cause can be discovered, sympathetic treatments can release the mind from any obsession. The Countess wants to hear more, so she invites Jeffrey over and asks him about the dead influencing the living. He tells the Countess to face her obsession head-on but not to engage it.
Well, the Countess understands the first part, anyway. Sandor brings a young girl, Lili (Nan Grey), back to her Chelsea studio on the pretense of having her pose for a painting and the Countess seduces her, the end result being Lili going away in an ambulance. The Countess and Jeffrey are going to have a lot to talk about the next time he sees her.
Dracula’s Daughter was supposed to be directed by Tod Browning and starring Bela Lugosi; in fact, the latter was signed on to do a sequel immediately after the success of Dracula, but for one reason or another, it took five years to film and release the movie. By that time, Browning was at MGM and Lugosi had moved on, so our august vampire was represented by a dummy and the film was directed by silent western veteran Lambert Hillyer.
I smiled way too much while watching Dracula’s Daughter, which is an odd thing to say about a vampire film that’s done in all seriousness, but it’s not really all that scary. In fact, the New York Times called it a “cute little horror picture,” and whether they were complimenting the movie or dragging it is a tossup.
While the movie isn’t terrible, it’s less than memorable and lacks…er, bite. The only part that stuck in my mind from the first time I saw it was when poor Lili got lured into the Countess’ studio and mauled by Ms. Vampire.
Instead of blatant creepiness, the movie flirts with character study. Does the Countess act out of evil, or is she a victim of her circumstances? Does the latter option make her any less guilty? Does she deserve reform, or does she play to type, as in, the-only-good-vampire-is-a-freshly-staked-vampire?
The film doesn’t delve deeply into any of this, though. It’s got quite a bit of schtick for a horror film, such as Jeffrey’s secretary, Janet (Marguerite Churchill) trolling Jeffrey while he’s visiting the Countess and fussing about his tie when he’s getting ready to go out. They have this combative relationship that seems sibling-ish at first but then looks sorta romantic. I say “sorta” because it never quite gets there even though we’re supposed to think it has.
Dracula’s Daughter kills it in the fan-serve department, though, although some of the bits are throwaways. The Countess says Dracula’s infamous line, “I never drink…wine,” but the delivery is so flat no one notices or cares. The Countess has no mirrors in her apartment because archetype. Sandor creeps around looking like Death Warmed Over. We see a spidery hand reaching out of a coffin as night falls. At a crucial moment Jeffrey climbs the same stairs used in the first movie with a lot of the same cobwebs. The only things missing are garlic and crucifixes.
The acting is pretty good for what it is, but there isn’t much to work with, and there isn’t even that much to say about it because no one stands out. Well, except for Hedda Hopper, who plays Lady Esme Hammond, but that’s because she’s Hedda Hopper. I’m trying not to be snarky because I enjoyed the movie, but I can’t help being a wee bit meh.
Although, I will say two things about the ending. One, it’s a nice little blindside, and two, who knew vampires could be killed with arrows? Von Helsing might be wasting his time with stakes.
The film’s overall blandness might be because the film’s links to its source material are a little muddy, maybe on purpose. While it claims to be a sequel to Dracula and based on an unpublished short story, Dracula’s Guest, it owes way more to Carmilla, an 1872 Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu novel about a woman vampire who seduces the title character. It’s said that Bram Stoker drew on Le Fanu’s work for Dracula, which came out almost a quarter-century after Le Fanu’s death.
Le Fanu isn’t credited anywhere in the movie, probably because Universal didn’t want to be associated with his novel’s very obvious lesbian angle, plus it was all a wee bit too awkward for the Hays Office’s comfort. There was a lot of pruning done before the film was deemed acceptable, even though the lesbian bit is still fairly obvious, seeing as the Countess mostly goes after women.
The other likely reason that the film feels relatively tame is that it came on the heels of some very violent horror films made at Universal, which involved their galaxy of creature feature stars killing, crushing, and dismembering each other in increasingly disturbing ways, and this naturally soured the public on horror films. Again, the changing of the guard meant that no one wanted to deal with monster films for a while. Universal wouldn’t make another one until 1939.
Dracula’s Daughter is a curiosity among the Universal horror catalogue. It might be less than frightening, but it’s an elegant coda to Universal’s iconic first wave of sound-era horror movies.
For more epic Girl Power, please see Dell at Dell On Movies. Thanks for hosting, this, Dell–it’s a blast! Thanks for reading, all, and I hope to see you tomorrow for another review, the eighth and last in Taking Up Room’s giant posting streak before December…
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