Dracula’s Daughter directed by Lambert Hillyer
Released a full five years after the classic Universal horror film Dracula, the sequel, Dracula’s Daughter, yet picks up a few scant seconds after the original left off. When we last saw our favorite Transylvanian neck nosher, he was lying dead in his coffin in the crypts beneath Carfax Abbey, a stake impaled in his heart courtesy of the intrepid Prof. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan, the only actor who would go on to appear in the sequel). As the latter film commences, constables enter the tomb and arrest the vampire slayer for murder, not giving credence to his statement that he has just done the world a great service. When even Scotland Yard pooh-poohs his query as to how can one be held for the murder of one already 500 years dead, Van Helsing brings in his old student, the psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey Garth (the ever-suave Otto Kruger), to defend him at his trial. And meanwhile, the Transylvanian countess Marya Zaleska (English actress Gloria Holden, here in her first major screen role) is very soon revealed to be you-know-who, who steals her father’s corpse and burns it in the hopes of being released from his vampiric curse. But when that rite proves unavailing, what other choice does the old gal have but to become a predatory creature of the London night…
Those wishing to read about the fascinating production background of Dracula’s Daughter are urged to take a look at the exhaustively in-depth article on the subject at a certain Wiki site. There, it is revealed that the film was made in a little over a month, cost under $300K to produce, was released on 5/11/36, and did not do as well at the box office as its predecessor. This last tidbit surprises me, as the sequel is in many ways a superior outing; I have long felt that the original Dracula, despite some memorable scenes, has not aged nearly as well as many other Universal horror pictures, and is indeed a bit creaky. The sequel is extremely compact, clocking in at a brief 70 minutes, and wastes little time on nonessentials, other than a few moments of forced comedy between Garth and his pretty assistant, Janet (Marguerite Churchill, who had just appeared three months earlier in the Karloff vehicle The Walking Dead). Curiously, the vampiress in this picture — although she is shown to be responsible for the deaths of two people, goes on to kidnap Janet, and later attempts to make Garth a fellow undead — can be seen as an object of pity; a woman who desperately tried to lead a normal life after her monstrous sire died but found the ancestral urges just too compelling.
In the lead role, Holden is simply marvelous. Certainly not a beauty in the traditional sense, she yet has a fascinating face that unfailingly manages to hold the eye, especially when enhanced by the great makeup artist Jack “Frankenstein” Pierce and shot in beautiful B&W by cinematographer George Robinson. A truly captivating woman, Zaleska would be arresting even without the aid of her magical hypnotizing ring! Director Lambert Hillyer, whose Karloff/Lugosi vehicle The Invisible Ray had been released two months earlier, and who would go on to helm dozens of Hollywood oaters AND the Batman movie serial, gives his leading lady loads of gorgeous close-ups here, and manages to engender an atmosphere of delicious gloom throughout his film.
The picture boasts at least three outstanding sequences. In the first, Zaleska and her servant, Sandor (Irving Pichel, a great character actor and future director of the sci-fi classic Destination Moon), burn Dracula’s body on a fogbound, lonely moor, whilst sad music gently plays in the background and the countess intones the dreary funeral rites. In the second, Zaleska plays the piano for Sandor while speaking of her hopes for a normal life, but her playing becomes ever more macabre, and when she asks the servant what he sees in her eyes, his only response is “Death.” And finally, in the third, the countess entices a would-be suicide named Lila (Nan Gray, who would go on to appear in another great Universal horror sequel, The Invisible Man Returns, in 1940, under the name Nan Grey) up to her garret to do some modeling. This scene has been the subject of some considerable comment over the years due to its supposed overtones of lesbianism, but try as I might, and after repeated viewings, I could not detect any (granted, I have notoriously poor “gaydar”). Indeed, Marya’s initial comment to Lila, “You have beautiful hands, but they’re so white and bloodless,” seems to suggest quite clearly that the countess is more interested in the young girl’s hemoglobin than in her anatomy! The Production Code Administration supposedly insisted on making this scene as sexually UNsuggestive as possible, and I would say that such is indeed the case. Much more suggestive is the later scene in which Zaleska hovers over Janet’s unconscious body in what would seem to be the prelude to a kiss, but even this is only subtly hinted at, at best.
Interestingly, the film also seems to shy away from ever showing the vampiress in her coffin; we only see her hand opening the lid and some shots of her about to either enter it or having just exited. Another edict from those censorious bastids at the Production Code office? Who knows? And curiously, the film reveals that it IS possible for a vampire to handle a crucifix … as long as her eyes are averted, that is! In all, a wonderful, logical sequel, and one that might make for a perfect double feature with the 1994 film Nadja, which deals with a character who I suppose must be deemed Marya’s younger sister. But really, Dracula’s Daughter is worth the price of admission just to hear Gloria Holden reiterate Bela Lugosi’s immortal line: “I never drink… wine.”
American vampirism has always been about sex, and so a beautiful woman vampire inviting another woman “up to her garret” would be read as a lesbian seduction scene by some people, no matter how “sexless” the dialogue is. That said, I’m not sure that, “You have lovely hands but they’re so white and bloodless,” isn’t a sexual come on.
I remember this movie from CREATURE FEATURE when I was.. well, much younger, and it is really moody and atmospheric.
So good to see film reviews on the site!