Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Unsung!: Dracula's Daughter

by JB
As a hidden gem of the now-classic 1930s Universal Monsters cycle, this film really is unsung -- not many people realize how great (some of) it is.  But Dracula’s Daughter is also completely sung for a different reason that is really nothing to sing about. So, the film is, in one sense, “some-sung”… or semi-sung. But on the other hand, it is over-sung, and still singing that same old song. Okay, now that I have cleared THAT up...

I recently revisited several Universal Monsters sequels in the run-up to the release of the new Universal Monsters Blu-ray box last Tuesday.  I re-watched Son of Frankenstein, The Mummy’s Tomb, Invisible Woman, and the little-known Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers vehicle I Danced, Danced, Danced on Dracula’s Grave. We decry the sheer number of pointless sequels and remakes today, but eighty years ago, Universal Studios was not at all shy about wringing every last dollar from their beloved horror characters.
The Universal sequels are fun, but most of them are little more than short B-movies, programmers meant to round out a double bill. Dracula’s Daughter is the exception. Given its troubled production history, it is amazing that any part of Dracula’s Daughter succeeds; but for the first 45 minutes or so this film is a worthy successor to the original Dracula. James Whale was originally slated to direct Dracula’s Daughter immediately following his masterpiece The Bride of Frankenstein. That would have been something, an A-list production. Whale balked and stalled--he was preparing to direct the vampire-free Showboat. (I would have loved to see James Whale’s Dracula’s Daughter.)

THE PLOT IN BRIEF: Dracula’s Daughter begins minutes after Dracula ends, as Dr. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) hammers a stake through Count Dracula’s heart. Because no one really believes in vampires, Van Helsing, in the absence of other evidence, is thought to be a particularly cruel, cold-blooded murderer and is arrested.  Dracula’s daughter, Countess Zaleska (Gloria Holden), steals her father’s corpse and sets it on fire, hoping that will free her of her father’s vampire spell.  It does not. With the aid of her manservant Sandor (a very creepy Irving Pichel), Zaleska is soon up to her father’s (very) old tricks. Here, check out the trailer:

There is a wonderfully extended and chilling scene about 45 minutes into Dracula’s Daughter, after which the film falls apart. Before this pivotal scene, the movie is a fascinating and scary character study; after, it becomes a grade-Z Sherlock Holmes copy, in which the mortal characters try to puzzle out everything the audience already knows. Yawn. I came for atmosphere, angst, and implied bloodshed, not some warmed-over police procedural. The second half of this film, for which I have very little affection, is what has consigned Dracula’s Daughter to a spot with other “also-rans” and “could-have-beens” in the shit can of cinematic history.

Unfortunately, the chilling pivotal scene has become the only reason this film is discussed anymore -- and for what I consider all the wrong reasons. Thirsty for blood, Countess Zaleska poses as an artist; her manservant Sandor brings her “figure models” as midnight snacks. The scene wherein Zaleska moves in for the kill on Lilly the Homeless Girl plays out as an eerie seduction, leading pundits to cite it as one of the first overtly lesbian scenes in screen history. The scene should be lauded for its effective intensity; instead it gets noticed for its hot girl-on-girl action.

Personally, I think this film was made to cash in on Dracula’s success, and the screenwriters so slavishly followed the formula of the original that they wrote all the victims as helpless females. There might also be some latent sexism here, if you think about it. Is Countess Zaleska prevented (by the screenwriters and the popular wisdom of the day) from victimizing males because the audience did not believe that a female could overpower a male?

I love the tone of nihilism and ennui that permeates the first half of this film, which deals squarely with the concept of inescapable fate and summons nothing more than a world-weary, existential shrug. This somehow reminds me of Griffin Dunne’s famous line in An American Werewolf in London, “Did you ever talk to the dead? It’s BORING.”

Other things to love about this film:

Universal comes through again with art direction and costumes that reek of faded European grandeur and cob-webby Gothic kitsch. Every set (especially the mist-shrouded clearing in which Zaleska sets her father’s corpse alight); every costume (Zaleska favors capes, a fashion choice I am sure she inherited from Papa); and every artifact (check out Zaleska’s “hypno-ring,” which I realize sounds like a new form of birth control) contribute to the atmosphere that is so uniquely Universal Horrorland.

The bumbling, intended-as-comic-relief English bobby played by Billy Bevan. Bevan began his career in silent Keystone Comedies for Mack Sennet in the 1920s, and I have always been a fan. (Lately, TCM has been running Thursday night tributes to Sennet featuring many of Bevan’s earlier films.) Dracula’s Daughter was the first time I ever heard him speak! Cool.

It stays true to Universal’s loopy “anything goes” attitude toward these sequels. In Dracula’s Daughter, Van Helsing’s name has inexplicably been changed to VON Helsing. (I was hoping in the next film, Son of Dracula, that the good doctor’s name would be “Van Wilder” “Venn Diagram” “If Van’s a-Rockin’, Don’t Come a-Knockin’, Dracula.”) In other Universal Horror sequels, towns change names (“Vasaria” to “Visaria,” for example) and actors would return to play different roles (Bela Lugosi plays Ygor in both Son of Frankenstein and Ghost of Frankenstein, then returns playing the Monster in Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man. Go figure). I think Universal actually engaged in these continuity lapses on purpose, so that seventy years later, bored Monster Kids like me would have something to obsess over.

For at least the first half, Dracula’s Daughter is a masterpiece. Do not take my word for it: no less an authority on non-sparkly vampires than Anne Rice claims that Countess Zaleska is her favorite vampire and seeing this film at an early age planted the seed of a sympathetic saga featuring “tortured and tragic” vampires.


  1. You had me at "hot girl-on-girl action".

  2. It really is quite good, isn't it? I'm going through many of the sequels on the legacy collections, and this one is much better than several of the others. I watched it last year, and will probably revisit it this year as well, because it does indeed rise above many of the others.

  3. Have always loved "Dracula's Daughter". Felt that it's been unappreciated for too long.

  4. A very atmospheric, if flawed film. Good performances.

    Interesting bit of trivia: Bela Lugosi was on the outs with Universal at the time, so they didn't even want him to play the corpse of Dracula. However, in one of the few really saavy moves of his career, Lugosi had a play-or-pay contract to do a sequel to "Dracula", and he received one of the highest salaries of his career for THIS movie, which he didn't even appear in.