Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
Cast: Gloria Holden, Otto Kruger, Irving Pichel, Margeuerite Churchill, Hedda Hopper
Director: Lambert Hillyer
Synopsis: Dracula’s daughter arrives on the scene to weave her own queer spell
Universal followed up 1931’s immensely successful Dracula with Dracula’s Daughter five years on. The film picks up exactly where Dracula ended with two typically upright yet bumbling British Bobbie’s discovering two bodies late one fogbound London night. They also discover Professor Van Helsing who calmly informs them that he has just slain Dracula by driving a wooden stake through his heart while the other corpse with a broken neck belongs to Renfield, Dracula’s demented servant. The policemen reckon Van Helsing is ready for the loony bin and the case is taken over by a bemused Scotland Yard. Though the Yard respect Van Helsing’s credentials how can they possibly subscribe to his rantings about Transylvanian vampires stalking the innocents of London. “A British jury will never stand for that” exclaims the officer from the Yard to an increasingly desperate Van Helsing who claims the only person who might be able to help him in clearing his name is noted psychiatrist Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger) who was once a student of Van Helsings back in Vienna.
While Van Helsing tries in vain to convince a disbelieving Garth of his theories, strange deaths are reported in the city bearing the symptoms that have been chillingly forewarned by Van Helsing. A mysterious Hungarian Countess by the name of Marya Zeleska arrives at the dungeon where Dracula’s body is being kept before the autopsy. She used her strangely magnetic eyes and a ring that seems to glow to hypnotise the guard and makes off with her fathers body. We learn that the countess is distraught at being cursed by her father’s affliction and now she seems to tremble in excitement at the prospect of a release from her “terrible condition”. She believes that by performing the burial rites on her father and exorcising him of all evil using a crucifix she will be able to break the curse of vampirism and lead a normal life as a mere mortal. Her hulking, menacing accomplice Sandor (Irving Pichel) has serious doubts about his mistress’s theory and mocks her growing belief that by burying her father she will subsequently be free – Sandor knows better.
As night falls, the Countess is slowly gripped by her evil urge and despite her best attempts to distract herself by painting and playing the piano, she is unable to resist. Sandor hands her the trendy Burqa she favours and also her special ring as she slips into the fog bound streets of London in search of sustenance in the form of a jugular vein or two. She falls further into depression having succumbed to her urge but vows to fight on having been encouraged by the words of Dr. Garth who she met at a gathering of socialites. Garth is drawn to the countess much to the disgust of his secretary cum love interest Janet – an irritating, bimbo compared to the elegant and mysterious Countess. Sadly however hard she may try to fight her ghastly condition and the murderous, blood thirsty urge that it gives rise to, it’s a losing battle. Eventually she realizes that Sandor is right and that she must plan her future, not as a mortal but as the living dead that she is. However, she plans on taking Garth as her eternal life partner and proceeds to plot his demise through a nefarious scheme involving treachery and kidnapping. Sandor considers himself as the chosen one for the Countess and the one to whom immortality ought to be granted for services rendered. When the countess appears to prefer Garth over Sandor, the latter decides to take matters into his own hands with dreadful consequences.
Dracula’s Daughter had been cooking at Universal Studios ever since Dracula made millions at the box office in 1931 going on to become Universal’s highest grossing film and the big wigs at the studio desperately wanted to keep the interest in horror at peak levels. At first this first sequel to Dracula had been envisioned as a lavish production featuring an elaborate prologue featuring Bela Lugosi. James Whale was set to direct but it didn’t turn out that way. The film ended up being made on a modest budget and didn’t feature any big name draw card stars at all. Instead Universal relied on the strength of the films title and the obvious association to the original. The studio bosses also decided to introduce a new actress in the title role and thus the raven haired, unconventional beauty Gloria Holden was selected no doubt largely due to her steely eyes and her elegant yet detached manner. She does an excellent job as the mysterious Countess Zeleska exuding charm, menace and desperation in equal proportions exactly as the role demanded.
Holden’s role has immortalized her as the film became quite a talking point in its day and continues to be a source of interest due to its interpretation as a film with heavy if subtle lesbian undertones. It is generally viewed that this film has heavy gay leanings in that the central character appears to be more attracted to victims of her own kind as well as the fact that she appears to be less feminine than conventionally expected. While Dracula’s daughter tries to exorcise her fathers body she speaks of her yearning to “live a normal life – think normal things”. This according to film experts is seen to be her desire to rid herself of her homosexual condition. Her struggle to rid herself of her fathers curse has been understood to reflect a desire to “cure” herself of her ailment, her homosexuality and her “uncontrollable urge” a parallel of her sexual appetite which seems to be as easily satisfied by female prey as it is by male victims. It has been said too that Sandor, the Countesses shadowy henchman cum accomplice is also a touch affected and together they form the perfect kooky “gay couple”. Perhaps cinemas first ever gay couple?
The film ran into censorship problems and the scene where the countess corners her frail blonde victim had to be re-written several times to avoid even the slightest hint of a sexual advance. At the same time the British censors started tightening up – another consideration Universal had to be mindful of while shooting the film. However much of the talk of latent lesbianism is conjecture and perhaps reading into things that may or may not be there. Even the fact that the countess resides in Chelsea is seen as a hint of her bohemian lifestyle with parallels drawn to the bohemian, alternative lifestyle that existed in New York’s trendy Greenwich Village. It ought to be kept in mind though when Dracula went for a male victim as he was certainly known to do, no one seemed to suggest that he was bisexual however when his daughter snares a female victim she is labeled as a lesbian. However it is due to the films reputation as a pseudo lesbian horror film that Gloria Holden has been immortalized as a gay icon though hardly in the league of such queer “role models” such as Baby Jane (Betty Davis) Hudson.
The discussion of lesbian undertones aside, the film works as a decent enough sequel to Dracula with its story that appears to be a logical enough continuation of events. Holden is fine as Marya Zelaska and is ably supported by brash psychiatrist and mousy love interest but Sandor makes a lasting impression with his cynical, utterly fatalistic point of view and his monosyllabic mocking of the Countesses aspirations as well as his startling appearance. The film is beautifully shot with stunning use of shades – the thick fog and the swirling, billowing mists perfectly rendered to create that typical and nostalgic “classic horror movie” aura. This film may not rank with the classics of the era but it certainly doesn’t disappoint as a sequel.