Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
Director: Lambert Hillyer
Daughter: Gloria Holden
This weird, weird movie begins in the cellars of Carfax Abbey as a direct sequel to the 1931 Browning/Lugosi Dracula. Well, actually, it began as a bit of dirty pool by MGM mogul David O. Selznick, who bought the rights to the short story “Dracula’s Guest” and the title Dracula’s Daughter (among others) from Florence Stoker solely to gum up Universal’s attempt to make a sequel to its film. While he squatted on the property, Selznick hired John Balderston (the co-author of the Dracula stage play) to write a script never intended to be shot: Balderston obliged with a paean to sado-masochism. When Universal finally bought Selznick’s interest in the sequel (at a tidy profit for him) they tried to get James Whale, auteur of Bride of Frankenstein, to direct it. More interested in making Show Boat than another horror film, but not wanting to bite Universal’s hand directly, Whale turned in a series of script drafts, each less filmable than the last, mostly to troll the Production Code Administration.
Finally, Universal once more cheaped out on a Dracula production, obliging the axing of a whole 15th-century subplot and all the original cast except Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing (much better with good direction, but given a second-banana part). Instead, they got the image rights from Lugosi to make a wax dummy of him for the first scene, in which London bobbies arrest Van Helsing for murder in the aforementioned basement. But Dracula’s daughter Countess Zaleska (Gloria Holden) shows up, steals the body of Dracula, and burns it (while holding a cross at arm’s length!) in an attempt to free herself from the vampiric curse she is somehow under. How did she know Dracula was dead? Is she his blood daughter, his vampiric get, or some other thing? Nothing is ever made clear in this movie — from Zaleska’s powers (she never shows any except mesmerism, which she does by means of a ring, not her eyes) to her sexuality. The movie has two of the greatest sublimated lesbian scenes in early film, but Zaleska also dines on a male toff and wants to share eternity (for reasons opaque to the viewer) with heroic psychiatrist Dr. Garth (Otto Kruger, bland and unworthy of both the Countess and his human love interest, the captivating Marguerite Churchill). These ambiguities, George Robinson’s deep, intent cinematography, and Gloria Holden’s imperious, self-hating performance (she didn’t want to see her career ruined like Lugosi’s) give the film its uncanny strength. Not only the first lesbian vampire film, it’s also — maybe — the first vampire psychosis film, paving the way for Martin and Vampire’s Kiss.
The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a “first cut” essay on a cinematic Dracula. Its fatal curse encouraged by the leering Sandor (and by your comments and responses), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order hypnotically compelling hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!