Horrormania: Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

dracula's daughter

2.5mls

(From now until Halloween, the Canadian Cinephile will be taken over by pure, unadulterated FEAR. No, I’m not commencing an Adam Sandler marathon. I will be reviewing some of the most spine-chilling, bloodcurdling horror movies, with this year’s trip covering those freaky films released prior to 1970. There will be a special focus on Universal’s classic monster pictures, so bring your hot cocoa. It’s going to be a dark and scary ride. Sort of.)

As the sequel to Universal’s Dracula, Dracula’s Daughter is a bit of a mixed bag. Lambert Hillyer serves as the director, with Garrett Ford providing the screenplay based on Bram Stoker’s short story “Dracula’s Guest.” This 1936 film doesn’t have a lot in common with the Stoker tale, however, and its path to the big screen was a tad complicated.

For one thing, Universal didn’t have the rights to “Dracula’s Guest” at first. They wound up buying them from MGM executive David O. Selznick and wanted James Whale to direct, what with his recent successes in the Frankenstein camp. He was more interested in doing Show Boat and left Universal, leaving Hillyer with the task of filming a significantly reconfigured script.

Dracula’s Daughter opens just a few minutes after the conclusion of Dracula, with Professor Von Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) having just staked Count Dracula. Along the way, he appears to have changed the spelling of his name. He’s also pinched by Scotland Yard, where he admits that he killed the Count but it shouldn’t matter because the dude’s been dead for 500 years.

Von Helsing hires a psychiatrist pal named Dr. Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger) to serve as his lawyer. Unfortunately for all involved, Dracula’s daughter Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) is haunted by her father’s vampirism and believes Garth can help her free her mind. Eventually, the Countess changes her mind and focuses on the shrink as her next quarry.

Marguerite Churchill is also featured as Janet, Garth’s secretary. Her relationship with the doctor is a bit of a love/hate thing, with him constantly getting pissy with her and her prank-calling him when he’s out with the vampire dame. It’s a match made in heaven. Probably.

Of course, Garth is a bit of a jerk anyway. He seems very quick-tempered and antsy. He constantly makes demands of others and rushes people through their explanations, which is either a decisive character trait or a distinctive way of hastening through Dracula’s Daughter’s profuse exposition. Perhaps Kruger is tired of hearing everyone yammer on.

Holden is the star of the show, thank goodness. She does a remarkable job loitering in the shadows, laden as she is by the curse of her father’s name. She blends into the chiaroscuro of Hillyer’s picture, occupying the dark with her manservant Sandor (Irving Pichel) and clarifying a sense of hunger that must surely have influenced the 2014 Persian film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.

Of special note is Jack Pierce’s makeup work. He transforms Holden with the help of special effects supervisor John P. Fulton, using inimitable lightning in the final scenes to give the Countess a distinguishing pastiness that submits her one of the truly “undead.” Holden’s eyes are also lit brilliantly, further exposing the prowling sensuality and unambiguous yearning.

Regrettably, Dracula’s Daughter is less than the sum of its parts. It doesn’t function that well as a consistent whole and misses out on any forward drive, even as Holden doubles-down on Bela Lugosi’s celebrated “I don’t drink…wine” line and even as Garth and Janet’s relationship floors it through some really passive-aggressive stuff.

There has been a lot of talk about the lesbian implications of Dracula’s Daughter, especially when it comes to the scene between the Countess and the model Lili (Nan Grey). This sequence theoretically signifies the upper limits of eroticism, with Lili hauling down her straps in order to pose for the Countess. It’s sizzling stuff, even if it’s perhaps more couched in bloodlust than anything else.

In the end, Dracula’s Daughter is a Universal lesser-than. It doesn’t reach the glorious Gothic heights of Tod Browning’s Dracula and doesn’t tinker with the scientific conscience of Frankenstein. It hints at something more thanks to Holden’s performance and some stimulating stuff about how vampirism can spread, but there’s little to stick to in terms of reliable terror and/or evocative drama.

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