Lambert Hillyer, 1936
Starring: Gloria Holden, Otto Kruger, Marguerite Churchill, Edward Van Sloan, Gilbert Emery
Starring: Gloria Holden, Otto Kruger, Marguerite Churchill, Edward Van Sloan, Gilbert Emery
In the early ‘30s, Universal studios explored a series of undead monsters with Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy, resulting in critical and financial acclaim. After a series of mad scientist films - Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Invisible Man, and The Raven - they produced the unexpectedly successful Bride of Frankenstein in 1935, introducing a gruesome yet sympathetic female monster. Though Frankenstein’s monster and Dr. Pretorius, the diabolical scientist, are the true villains of the film, the Monster’s bride paved the way for a more malicious female ghoul. Essentially an attempt to cash in on Bride of Frankenstein’s success, Universal conjured up Dracula’s Daughter, a sequel to Tod Browning’s 1931 classic. Though less critically acclaimed than its sire, the follow up re-imagined vampire genre tropes and blended a variety of cinematic and literary influences.
Released in 1936, Dracula’s Daughter picks up immediately where its predecessor left off. Discovered in a crypt with the recently staked Count, Von Helsing is arrested for murder. Edward Van Sloan reprises his role as Van Helsing from Dracula and is the only actor from the original film to return. Scotland Yard obviously doesn’t believe he killed a vampire, so he asks his friend, an acclaimed psychiatrist, to be a character witness. Dr. Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger) was once his student and prepares to defend him, despite many misgivings. Enter Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden), who steals Dracula’s body with the help of her sinister servant Sandor (Irving Pichel). Claiming to be Dracula’s daughter, she burns his corpse in an elaborate ritual with the intention of breaking the vampiric curse on her soul.
Unfortunately this proves ineffective and Zaleska resumes her nightly hunt for blood. Soon she meets Garth and convinces him she suffers from a powerful affliction. He agrees to help her and is certain her malady is only psychological. Despite Garth’s help, her blood lust continues and she gives up on a cure. In a last, desperate attempt, Zaleska kidnaps Garth’s assistant, Janet (Marguerite Churchill), and brings her to Transylvania. She lures Garth there and intends to turn him into a vampire. He reluctantly agrees if she will set Janet free, but Sandor shoots Zaleska through the heart with an arrow because she neglected an old promise to transform him. He is shot by the police and Garth and Janet are freed.
Because Dracula’s Daughter was spawned by the success of James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein, Whale was originally hired as director with much of Dracula’s cast slated to return. In 1936 legendary producers Carl Laemmle and his son Carl Laemmle, Jr., responsible for much of Universal’s early horror output, were removed from Universal for financial issues and the overburdened studio scrapped the original plan for Dracula’s Daughter. Script duties were still given to Garrett Fort (Dracula and Frankenstein), though the role of director passed to Lambert Hillyer (The Invisible Ray and the 1943 Batman). Allegedly Dracula’s Daughter is based on “Dracula’s Guest,” a short story by Bram Stoker that was believed to be the excised prologue from Dracula, though Stoker scholars are now skeptical of this claim. David O. Selznick purchased the rights for MGM, but later sold them to Universal. The plot similarities between Dracula’s Daughter and “Dracula’s Guest” are merely thematic, both revolving around a female vampire subordinate to Dracula.
Dracula’s Daughter is emotionally bleak, steeped in Gothic atmosphere and full of melancholy in a way its predecessor failed to be. Holden carries the film with a mesmerizing, sympathetic performance, at once alluring and repulsive. The lack of genre cliches provides a fresh take on vampire cinema, one that would resurface later in horror history. This minor masterpiece seems to have had an influence on ‘60s and ‘70s Gothic horror in the British and Italian canons, such as Hammer’s Karnstein trilogy (The Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire, and Twins of Evil) and Bava’s satanic witchcraft masterpiece Black Sunday. There are a number of elements in these later films that were presented for the first time in Dracula’s Daughter. Zaleska’s vampirism is portrayed as a blend of madness, female hysteria, sexual dysfunction, and addiction. She is a reluctant vampire, desperate to regain her mortality at any cost. More importantly, this is the cinematic introduction to lesbian vampiric activity. Though she takes both male and female victims, Zaleska prefers young, attractive female victims.
Dracula’s Daughter is not a perfect film and suffers from large plot holes and ill-placed comedy. The bumbling police officers from the opening are poorly placed and mar the gloomy atmosphere. There is a complete lack of chemistry between Holden and Kruger, complicated by the fact that Kruger was normally cast as a villain and is ill-suited for the role. The chemistry between Kruger and Churchill is even worse, playing out like a failed “battle of the sexes” comedy. Despite its flaws, Dracula’s Daughter is representative of an interesting blend of influences.
Though there are many deviations, Dracula’s Daughter has a number of similarities to its parent film and source novel. Like Lugosi’s Dracula, Zaleska is an attractive, charming aristocrat from Eastern Europe. She sleeps in a coffin, “never drinks... wine,” and abhors mirrors. She also has a penchant for wearing flowing, dark capes, staring intently and speaking little. Lugosi and Holden both possess the camera, overwhelming the frames with facial close ups, showing a close resemblance between their hypnotic eyes, raven hair and aquiline noses. Though Zaleska’s vampirism is less overt than Dracula’s, she is clearly a blood sucker, leaving puncture wounds on her dead or comatose victims. With the aid of a large moonstone ring, she uses hypnotism to get what she wants. The most obvious inspiration for Zaleska’s character derives from the three vampire women who are commonly referred to as Dracula’s brides, though their role in the novel is more nebulous and they are called sisters. Two of them are dark-haired and bear a close physical resemblance to Dracula. It is inferred that the third, a blonde, is their leader. In conversation with Jonathan Harker, Dracula claims to have loved these women in the past, though whether this is familial or romantic love is unclear. They are attractive, yet repulsive, due to their sexual exuberance and their voracious appetites for blood. In his journal, Jonathan Harker writes that, “There was something about them that made me uneasy, some longing and at the same time some deadly fear. I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips.”
The female vampire in Stoker’s story “Dracula Guest” is another obvious inspiration for Zaleska, though no other plot elements are shared between the film and its supposed source material. “Dracula’s Guest” opens with an unidentified Englishman visiting Germany on his way to Transylvania. Ignoring warnings from the locals, he explores an abandoned village on Walpurgis Night. The horse pulling his carriage is scared off and he is forced to walk the long distance back to the hotel alone in heavily falling snow. He takes shelter in some trees, but realizes he is in the middle of a cemetery, near a great tomb. There is a stake driven through the tomb, which belongs to Countess Dolingen of Gratz from Styria. Because of the impending storm, he is forced to take shelter in the mouth of the tomb, where he encounters a beautiful woman with red lips. A storm saves him from this mysteriously threatening woman and he wakes with a wolf on his chest, presumably protecting him from further dangers.
Though the original novel and filmic version of Dracula play an important formative role in the sequel, there are a number of other, earlier literary influences. Stoker’s fellow Irishman Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella Carmilla is an obvious inspiration, as are several texts from European fin de siecle literature and horror fiction from the early 1900s. Carmillia is set in the Styrian countryside (the home place of Stoker’s Countess Dolingen). A young lady named Laura meets Carmilla, who comes to stay with Laura and her father due to a carriage accident. The beautiful Carmilla is nocturnal, deeply secretive, possessive of Laura and makes occasional romantic advances towards her friend. Laura begins to have terrible nightmares of a cat-creature biting her chest and her health takes a turn for the worse. It is revealed that Carmilla is responsible and is actually a several hundred year old vampire, Countess Mircalla Karnstein. A small band of men join together to hunt down her tomb and destroy her in the hope that they can save Laura’s life in time.
Carmilla was the first lesbian vampire and actually pre-dates Dracula by about twenty-five years. Like Stoker’s Lucy, Dolingen, and Zaleska, Carmilla is aristocratic, tall and thin with large, entrancing eyes and full, seductive lips. Carmilla, Lucy, and Dolingen have nocturnal habits and hunt at night. Both Carmilla and Dracula present a subversive, fluid sexuality where gender is distorted and there are links between monstrosity, homosexuality, hypersexuality, and hysteria.
In addition to Carmilla, Zaleska is likely shaped by several horror stories in the early 1900s that depict tales of sexually aggressive, vampiric female characters that were undoubtedly also inspired by Carmilla, such as the works of women writers like Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Mary Wilkins Freeman. The demonic, sexualized vamp was a relatively popular trope in fin de siecle art and literature. A particular concern at the time was the concept of the New Woman, a financially, sexually, and emotionally independent being. This type of woman rejected concepts of motherhood and family values, which resulted in a number of literary works showing monstrous, sexually motivated female characters. There are French novels from the late 1800s and early 1900s like Rachilde’s Monsieur Vénus and The Marquise de Sade and Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony and Salammbô. Artwork from the period also depicts pale, dark-haired female vampires, such as work from Edvard Munch, Henri Martin, Georges de Feure, and Philip Burne-Jones.
Zaleska’s unhappy plight is suggested to be a combination of disease, addiction and madness, all themes reflect in fin de siecleart. Vampirism was initially linked with depictions of disease in the nineteenth century, namely anemia, porphyria, tuberculosis, plague, and sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis. The latter in particular connects vampirism with the moral and physical decline feared by Victorian society. This subtext was revisited in the late 1980s when a connection between HIV and vampirism was explored in numerous films and books. One of the first authors to do this, Anne Rice, has stated that some of her most important female vampires, such as the villainous Akasha in Queen of the Damned, were inspired by Dracula’s Daughter.
Zaleska also has much in common with several of Oscar Wilde’s literary inventions. Like the titular character of his Salomé, she is “like a woman rising from a tomb... She is like a dead woman. One might fancy she was looking for dead things.” She is also similar to literary male libertines like the titular character of Wilde’s Dorian Gray, following the sort of “double life” associated with amoral but privileged young men. She keeps a separate apartment as a painting salon in a questionable neighborhood and under an assumed name, which is also where she seduces and feeds on vulnerable young women of lower classes.
Finally, it is necessary to consider the influence that The Bride of Frankenstein had on Dracula’s Daughter. There are a number of plot similarities between these two female-centric sequels. Frankenstein’s monster strives to be a normal human, which he seeks to do by attaining a mate and gaining social acceptance. Zaleska also seeks to reject her monstrosity and become a normal woman, reinstating family values. Frankenstein’s monster has a diabolical father, Pretorius, who controls and molds him, just as Dracula controls Zaleska from beyond the grave, “possessing” her consciousness. The Monster is ultimately rejected by his potential mate, who has been turned into an undead creature on his behalf. Zaleska nearly persuades Garth to accept her vampiric curse, but fate prevents this. The Bride of Frankenstein includes a gay subtext in the troubled relationship between Pretorius and Henry Frankenstein, while Dracula’s Daughter is much more overt with its homosexual subplot.
Dracula’s Daughter is a unique combination of influences that represent the best of horror in turn of the century art and literature. The film is an important, but sadly neglected part of the Dracula film canon and helped shaped depictions of future female vampires and vampirism as a symbol for addiction, disease, or psychosis. Fortunately Dracula’s Daughter was made available to horror fans with the release of Dracula: the Legacy Collection set that includes Dracula, the Spanish version of Drácula, Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Dracula, and House of Dracula.
Even after more than seventy years, she still “gives you that weird feeling!”