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May 23, 2011

The Universal Horror Experience - Dracula's Daughter

Man, Dracula's Daughter is something else.  For starters, it's one of the Universal Horror sequels that I - despite my love for all things monstrous - had never gotten around to seeing.  Until last night, that is.  And now that I have seen it, I'm pretty sure it's one of the more unique horror sequels ever made.
It was merely 1936 when Dracula's Daughter was released, as Universal was riding the wave of success from Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931 and 1935's Bride of Frankenstein had established just how profitable a sequel could be to the studio.  I guess the feminine side of Bride was an inspiration to the people behind Dracula's Daughter, but the tone of the two films couldn't be more different.  That's not a big surprise, because Dracula and Frankenstein were different in tone as well, but the gap between their sequels is gigantic.
Actually, Dracula's Daughter might be the darkest movie of its era that I've seen.  Gloria Holden - the grandmother of The Mist and The Walking Dead co-star Laurie Holden - seems to float around the screen as the title character. Holden also uses her distant stare and rounded eyebrows to make Countess Marya Zaleska a hypnotic femme fatale, and the power of her presence in the film can't be denied.  The performance has certainly been an influential one in the horror scene, and is referenced as an inspiration for future female vampires like the ones created by author Anne Rice.
But, if we want to get to the part of Dracula's Daughter that involves Ms. Holden, we need to start at the beginning and the film's kind of genius set up.  In the opening scene we see the aftermath of the unseen finale of Dracula, as Professor Von Helsing - played again by Edward Van Sloan - deals with the police after putting a stake through the heart of Count Dracula (played here by a wax version of Bela Lugosi).  Watching the two patrolmen try to fathom why this distinguished old man has just put a stake through someone's heart is actually a pretty humorous opening, but it also leads into a unique discussion of the vampire curse.  As Von Helsing (seriously, that Von sooooo bugs me) puts it, you can't be charged with murder when someone's been dead for 500 years.  I think he has a point
The old doctor's pleas lead to the involvement of a psychiatrist/former student played by Otto Kruger, but also leads Countess Zaleska to London, where she uses her hypno-skills to acquire her father's corpse.  She promptly burns the corpse, because she's convinced that doing so will end her vampire curse.  Unlike her Romanian ancestor, the younger Dracula doesn't feel very comfortable in her role as a child of the night.  She still avoids wine and she still craves blood, but the diabolical edge of her father is replaced with a sad indifference in her eyes.  It's like she knows that what she is simply can not exist peacefully in our world.
Speaking of "what she is", I'd be foolish not to mention the sexual implications of the film.  Despite the strict regulations on films of the era, Dracula's Daughter is filled to the brim with some shockingly obvious lesbian undertones.  The Countess primarily sets her sights on female victims, and her intimate gaze at these women had to be a bit risque for the era.  A mid-film scene in which she offers to paint a young girl from the shoulders up shows a shocking amount of skin for the era, and the studio was very hesitant to approve the scene due to its homosexual subtext.  By today's standards it's impossible to miss the gaga-eyes Holden gives these young women - after all, I am the guy who used to think Mac and Blaine in Predator might have been gay lovers - and it's interesting to me that many people of the era weren't taken aback at all by the Countess' interactions with her victims. Wikipedia even cites that one critic advised viewers to "Be sure to bring the kiddies"!  (And if it's on Wikipedia it MUST be true!
I'm not really sure how anyone of the era would assume this was family fare anyway, because Dracula's Daughter features a lot of dark and foggy scenes that create more tension than anything in the Dracula film that preceded it.  Holden's dark performance is also accentuated by her creepy henchman Sandor (played by Irving Pichel), who lurks in shadows like an imposing mixture of Boris Karloff and Humphrey Bogart.  His relationship with the Countess is also an interesting one, as he seems to understand both her disdain for her condition and her unstoppable need to feed upon the innocent. 
I'm talking up Dracula's Daughter pretty well, though I'm not sure I really felt I liked the film that much.  It suffers from pacing problems that are similar to Lugosi's Dracula, and the connecting scenes that don't involve Holden or Pichel often fall pretty flat.  But Dracula's Daughter is at least a thought-provoking sequel that is its own movie, and it earned my respect quickly by being so willing to take chances that buck what viewers would expect from it.  Though seventy-five years have passed since its release, Dracula's Daughter still feels like it's kind of a rebel in the Universal Horror scene - and I respect that greatly.


therealphoenixanew said...

I can't believe I actually saw a horror film before you did! This is surely not possible. There must have been a mess up in the time stream.

Anyway, I felt very similar about the film. It's very interesting to watch as a daring piece of film for its time period, but no where near the classic that a lot of these old Universal films are.

Anonymous said...

Great write-up, Mike. Just wanted to let you know that I included a link to this article in the latest "issue" of Spatter Analysis.

Check it out!