Originally published October 22nd, 2013
It’s exasperating to watch a great movie crippled by a subplot meant to provide romance or levity only to enhance annoyance in the audience. Dracula’s Daughter walks the line between sequel and female-based remake of Dracula; where the original Dracula integrated the romance within the horror, here it sticks out like an irritating boil on your foot. Thankfully, the lead performance from Gloria Holden is amazing, and the movie’s analysis of vampirism provides fascinating commentary on gender and sexuality; I just wish it was the film’s predominant focus.
After the death of her father, Count Dracula, Hungarian Contessa Marya Zeleska (Holden) seeks freedom. However, her nocturnal urges for blood continue to bind her to a life of darkness. She enlists the help of noted psychiatrist, Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger) to prevent her urges, but Marya starts to wonder if maybe Garth should become her latest victim.
The original intent was to turn Dracula’s Daughter into an expensive A-list picture with a cast comprised of both Lugosi and Boris Karloff (although it’s assumed Karloff wouldn’t be playing Frankenstein), Colin Clive and Caesar Romero directed by James Whale. The film did become the most expensive production at the time, but ended up going to B-level with Western director Lambert Hillyer and the cast eventually settled on. It may lack A-list, but some of the more insightful classic films are B-movies because they aren’t hindered by the expectations inherent within their budget and caliber of stardom (not to mention the Production Code isn’t watching as closely).
Dracula’s Daughter is commonly cited for combining vampirism with lesbianism, particularly during the sequence where Marya Zeleska “attacks” a young woman she asks to pose for her (played by the beautiful Nan Grey). The entire sequence is a beautiful cat-and-mouse game of seduction and voyeurism as the young girl, Lili stands with her back exposed and the Contessa’s piercing gaze mentally undressing her. The fact that there’s a bare back in the shot at all must have had ladies clutching their pearls. The attack is off-screen, but based on Lugosi’s attacks in the original, you’re led to believe Marya has seduced and penetrated her prey. Later on, when Lili is recounting the ordeal she ends up dying; the victim of a deviant lifestyle who, unfortunately for the time, must be sacrificed in order to have her soul restored. If you think the lesbian context is confined to one scene, the entire relationship between Marya and Garth is in the hopes that the doctor can “cure” the vampire of her deviant lifestyle. Obviously we’re meant to interpret the deviancy as vampirism, but combined with the later scene with Lili it’s apparent there’s more here than meets the eye. Furthermore, Marya is relieved to cast the yoke of Dracula off, “free to live as a woman.” The implication is she’s able to be a free woman away from male patriarchy, but also she’s able to live a lifestyle considered taboo.
Gloria Holden is a worthy successor to Lugosi, and she certainly fits the bill if you’re casting a daughter for the famous blood-sucker. Holden’s introduction has her masked from head to toe with only her eyes glowing from her shroud. Her voice is soothing, setting the stage for a character who is hypnotic and entrancing. There’s no grandstanding or theatrics in her performance; her bearing is enough that she doesn’t have to exaggerate her motions or put on a crazy accent. Obviously, though, Holden says the immortal “I never drink…wine” line as a nod to the original, but it’s a subtler incantation taking on a menacing tone. In fact, Von Helsing’s (Edward Van Sloan reprising his role) line, “the strength of the vampire is that he’s unbelievable” applies better to Holden’s depiction. You would never believe a beautiful woman – who kept reminding me of Meryl Streep throughout – could be a demonic monster. Sorry Lugosi, but you gave the game away from the first moment. When Marya goes out to hunt, she’s surrounded in a street filled with men, but she’s the one to fear. It’s refreshing, especially for 1936, to have a female horror character with the urge to get better, and yet lose the battle through no fault of her own other than addiction.
Anytime Holden is on-screen and the movie focuses on her there’s a lot of enjoyment derived. However, the movie finds itself torn between the fascinating exploration of vampirism and the incredibly annoying “romance” between Garth and his assistant, Janet (Marguerite Churchill). Neither actor is exemplary, but it doesn’t help they’re saddled with the worst plotline to interject into a horror picture. We’re introduced to Garth as he’s about to hunt for grouse, only he wishes he could spend time with “a few ‘birds’ in London I’d like to shoot.” Wow, what a pick-up line! After that, the movie has Janet and Garth squabbling like brother and sister, not at all the relationship you want to convey between two potential lovers who are employer/employee. Anytime the plot ramps up we have to watch Janet play childish pranks on her employer because she’s jealous of other women paying attention to him. In one scene, she causes him to embarrass himself with the head of the hospital he works at. How is this girl still employed? When Garth finally gives her a pink slip, he immediately hires her back only to have her insult the Contessa for no reason other than feminine jealousy. I realize if you’re focused on deviancy, especially in 1936, you want a character representing the “correct” relationships, but Janet is a terribly childish character and Garth is a total jerk to her. Are we sure this is meant to be a romantic angle? Because he’s continually telling her to be quiet and leave him alone. I would have enjoyed Janet becoming a vampire purely to kill Garth for treating her like trash.
Drop the Janet/Garth plotline and Dracula’s Daughter is an atmospheric exploration of the vampire film from a gender and sexual angle. The movie locks itself into the Dracula mythos and creates a strong link to the original, held together by the indomitable performance of Gloria Holden. If only the movie didn’t trivialize everything with an irksome romance better suited to a Shirley Temple movie than a horror feature.
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