FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE, so beware yon spoilers!

Aug 26, 2010

Father Was a Dracula

Dracula's Daughter (1936) was produced by Universal Studios as a sequel to their smash hit Dracula, featuring Bela Lugosi as the titular bloodsucker. Despite its ties to Dracula and its tenuous basis in Bram Stoker's short story "Dracula's Guest", Dracula's Daughter is perhaps best known as the first lesbian vampire film.

Gloria Holden stars as Countess Marya Zaleska, who claims to know, the daughter of Count Dracula. When she learns that Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) has slain her vampire father, Marya is relieved- she's convinced that his death will mean her release from her insatiable bloodlust. She steals his body from the local morgue and burns it, thrilled at the prospect of being "free forever" and finally able to "live as a woman in the world of the living". Her manservant Sandor (Irving Pichel), however, convinces her that she will never be free from the curse; soon Zaleska prowls the dark streets of London once more, in search of victims. As her hope turns to despair, the Countess seeks the aid of psychiatrist Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger) as attempts to pit "the strength of the human mind against the power of darkness".

These obsessive desires of Zaleska can be viewed as veiled references to any number of things, including drug use and, yes, homosexuality. While Universal apparently acknowledged the hints of lesbianism (and even banked on it in the film's marketing campaigns- "Save the women of London from Dracula's Daughter!"), they are only that- hints. They're extremely subtle hints you have to keep your eyes peeled for as you bear in mind the period in which the film was made. There's no touching in the film- hell, Zaleska never bares fangs and any biting, if in fact there actually is any, occurs off-screen. The scene with the heaviest indicators occurs when the Countess brings a young girl, Lili (Nan Grey), back to her studio to "model" for a painting. Lili drops the shoulders of her dress as Marya attempts to bewitch her with her patented soulful gaze / sparkling ring combo; Lili grows uncomfortable and attempts to flee, but her fate has been sealed. Is she genuinely taken with Lili, or is she just a hungry vampire? After all, she also "seduces" male victims the same way. In a later scene, Zaleska almost puts the bite on Dr. Garth's assistant Janet (Marguerite Churchill), whom she's kidnapped- and who, it should be noted, does NOT willingly succumb to the Countess's charms. Zaleska slowly...slowly...SLOWLY inches closer to Janet's neck, but she's interrupted before there's any contact by the arrival of Garth who, incidentally, is the one the Countess longs to be with for eternity. This desire, however, is borne of a "cure me or be stuck with me forever" attitude rather than the experience of true love. So. Lesbian subtext? Sure, it's there if you're looking for it- which, umm, I suppose is why it's called "subtext". It's also more negative than it is steamy- don't forget, Zaleska needs to be cured of her "affliction".

Even if it weren't a film that provokes speculation and discussion, Dracula's Daughter would still be an enjoyable example of Universal's gothic horror. The streets of London are all cobblestones and shadows, while Zaleska's haunt is all shadows and cobwebs. Gloria Holden is appropriately mesmerizing as the Countess- her reluctance to play a role she feared would hinder her burgeoning career (as Lugosi complained of Dracula) informs her performance with a haughty discomfort that relays Zaleska's discomfort well. There's an ample amount of comic relief in the film, particularly early on when some cowardly cops have to deal with the bodies of Renfield and Dracula.

There's a terrific article and analysis of the film over at And You Call Yourself a Scientist!, which is where I got most of these awesome screencaps. Hat tip for the post title to Adam Ross of the late DVD Panache.


B-Sol said...

I adore this movie. One of the most underrated of all the Universal horror films. And after Bride of Frankenstein, maybe the best of all the sequels. Great review!

Stacie Ponder said...

Thanks, Mr. Sol! I'm not a wicked huge fan of Universal stuff, myself...but maybe I haven't simply seen enough to say that for sure. What I CAN say, however, is that this movie was very enjoyable- a very different sort of sequel than what I'd expect. Gloria Holden was great!

Anonymous said...

Is she the daughter of Dracula in the sense that Dracula had sex with someone and impregnated them? Or did he just make a countess a vampire and she's his vampirey offspring?

Anonymous said...

I absolutely LOVE this movie! It is definitely one of my favorite Universal horror films, it's a shame that it gets overlooked at times. I much prefer this to 1943's Son of Dracula with Lon Chaney Jr. I agree with B-Sol that after Bride, this is the best Universal sequel.
Oh yes, the subtext is there, especially in the scene with Lili.
btw, I hear there is talk of a Bride remake....I hope it doesn't suck, lol
Dreaded Dreams
Petunia Scareum

Paul Arrand Rodgers said...

Super giant fan of Universal horror. Great write-up of an underappreciated film.

Have you seen the Spanish version of Dracula? It's probably my favorite Universal horror movie ever. More violent and psychological and technically innovative than anything Universal produced during that period.

Stacie Ponder said...

They never really specify what they mean by "daughter", unless I missed it. I assume it's meant in the sense that he converted her rather than literally fathered her. There's not much to her origin explored at all.

I've never seen the Spanish Dracula, but the consensus seems to be that it's far superior to the more famous Lugosi-flavored one. I should seek it out!

dfordoom said...

A great movie, much better than Universal's overrated and dull Dracula. The best of the Universal horror movies are the lesser known ones such as Son of Dracula, The Raven (the 1935 version) and The Black Cat.

Missy Y. said...

Perhaps it is a bisexual vampire tale, no? A whole new subgenre.

Stacie Ponder said...

Well yeah, if Zaleska is truly attracted to women here, then it's a bisexual vampire tale. It's very rare, in fact for the vampires in "lesbian vampire" movies to ACTUALLY be lesbians- 9 times out of 10, they're bisexual. They just all fallen under the "lesbian vampire" so many things do!

AE said...

This was a fun movie to watch. I liked the idea of a penitent vampire who is horrified by the whole "I am a monster" thing and wants to be a regular person; it's an idea that seems ahead of its time. But I really wanted Gloria Holden to just be evil and own it! That's so much more fun! She's so awesome in this movie and I really wanted to see her happy.

Also, I thought the ring thing was sort of dumb.

Arbogast said...

People have been discerning lesbian subtext in Dracula's Daughter for 40 years - I'd be more interested in other readings of the movie. I think the really compelling relationship in the film is between Marya Zaleska and Sandor, who have one of the greatest codependent unions in cinema - they're right up there with George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?!

I think the desires in the film have everything to do with belonging - Marya desires to belong to the same seemingly normal society as Jeffrey Garth, even though the somewhat misanthropic Garth disdains that same society, preferring to be off hunting by himself. The pixie-ish Janet is a normalizing force who tries to bring Garth back into society and that particular force of nature (or nurture?) seems successful at the final fadeout, with the outsiders Sandor and Marya dead/returned to nature.

I think lesbianism fits into a whole panoply of so-called anti-social behaviors evoked by the film and one of them just might be the artistic impulse, the thing that makes many of us understand who we are while at the same time putting us at a distance from our familiars.

Anyway, these questions are at least part of the reason why Dracula's Daughter has obsessed me for nearly four decades.

Stacie Ponder said...

We need a Sandor-centric prequel. How did these two hook up? His life before her must have been pretty bad if he so desperately wants to become much so that he turns into one of those classic "If I can't have you (it), no one will!" abusers at the end.

Arbogast said...

I'm down for that!