Hot on the heels of his “31 Days of Hammer” in January, his “31 Days of British Horror” in March and his “31 More Days of British Horror” in May, Jules is travelling across the pond this July with… you guessed it… 31 Days of American Horror!
Director: Lambert Hillyer
Starring: Otto Kruger, Gloria Holdenm Marguerite Churchill
With Frankenstein’s sequel being such an unmitigated success, following up with more Dracula the following year must have seemed like an open goal for Universal.
Much like Bride Of Frankenstein, its plot would take up mere minutes after it’s predecessor ended, while also introducing a new female lead, but it would take a very different narrative path. There would be no return of Dracula, no catching up with Mina or any other of the cast except Van Helsing, though he would be weirdly called Von Helsing here.
Instead, we would be introduced to a reluctant vampire, a skeptical policeman and a daring for its time lesbian subtext that’s never too far from the surface.
Count Dracula has been destroyed by Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), but the authorities question his account of the story and charge him with the murder of both the vampire and his thrall Renfield, leading the Professor to approach psychiatrist Dr. Henry Garth (Otto Kruger) to help prove his innocence.
Dracula’s legacy lives on though, as his daughter, the Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden), is also one of the undead despite her best efforts to end her curse by destroying her father’s body. With the encouragement of her manservant Sandor (Irving Pichel), Marya begins to accept her vampiric thirst for blood and resumes hunting for victims, transfixing them before feeding with a jewel embedded on her ornate ring.
Now more conflicted than ever, she comes across Dr Garth at a society party and asks him to help her overcome Dracula’s influence, but quickly finds herself struggling with her desire to turn the psychiatrist himself, luring him to Transylvania with the intention of making him her immortal companion…
The first thing that strikes you about Dracula’s Daughter is the idea that there would be real-world repercussions for staking a vampire. We just assume the good guys win and evil is vanquished, no questions asked, but really, how do you explain the body of that nobleman lying with a wooden stake in his heart without sounding insane? Of course the authorities would be suspicious and the fact and screenwriter Garrett Fort deserves credit for addressing it rather than just jumping in to another cat and mouse game with the undead. Saying that, he deserves less credit for ignoring Harker and Dr Seward, whose testimony would have went a long way to exonerating poor Van Helsing.
Edward Van Sloan gets the balance just right here, too. We know his Van Helsing isn’t insane or a murderer, but the police don’t and his performance covers both bases. He’s serious and means business, but there’s a quirkiness to him as well, a slight daffiness that if you didn’t know he legitimately had just destroyed a vampire, could easily look like a crazy old man.
What really sets Dracula’s Daughter apart though is it’s star character and the woman brining her to life, or undeath even.
Countess Marya Zaleska is the first time we see a reluctant vampire and you can’t help but feel empathy for her. She’s an immortal, dangerous predator, powerful beyond imagining but deeply, deeply vulnerable too. She doesn’t relish her abilities like her father did, she detests them and herself, but no matter how hard she tries to relieve herself of the curse, her instinct to feed never truly goes away, forcing her into killing again and beginning another cycle of self-loathing.
The sapphic nature of her identity is telegraphed beyond doubt more that once too, most prominently when she prepares the young model Lili for a bare-shouldered photo shoot. It’s a nervy, uncomfortable scene as the doomed model gradually realises the Countess’ intentions. Similarly her looming over the prostrate Janet (Marguerite Churchill) after abducting her to draw Garth over to Transylvania is wonderfully loaded with subtext.
Those scenes draw up an interesting duality as the part of her who wants to be human and despises her evil nature desires the manly Dr Garth, but the instinctive vampire within her goes with her natural urges and focuses her desires on young women instead. She’s a complicated character.
It’s all up there on the screen, but no matter how great the scripting for the Countess was, it would never have worked without Gloria Holden’s immense performance. Despite keeping her emotions deeply buried, she radiates pain, loneliness, self-loathing and lust throughout, all while barely registering any in her expressions. It’s Holden that turns a well-written protagonist into a truly tragic one, a villain who knows she is and despises herself for it. She’s a victim herself, one who then makes others victims despite herself. It takes a good actor to pull that off and Holden absolutely nails it.
Dracula’s Daughter isn’t the most obvious sequel to a big hit Universal could have made and it didn’t do all that great, but for us watching it now, we can be grateful that they tried something different. It’s a unique, charming and ultimately quite emotionally affecting entry in the Dracula series that deserves your attention.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy