Friday, October 8, 2010

Saturday, April 4, 1970: Dracula's Daughter (1936)

Synopsis: Two bumbling policemen discover a pair of murder victims at Carfax Abbey. One is Count Dracula's old minion Renfield. The other is Dracula himself, lying in a wooden box with a stake driven through his heart. The only other person around is Professor Von Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) who freely admits to killing the Count. The police, thinking he is mad, arrest him.

Sir Basil Humphrey (Gilbert Emery), the head of Scotland Yard, tells Von Helsing that he'll need a brilliant defense attorney to get him out of this mess. But Von Helsing is only interested in contacting psychologist Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger), whom he feels is the only person who will truly believe his story.

Meanwhile, the body of Dracula is locked in a back room at the police station. A mysterious woman appears, hypnotizing the cop on duty and spiriting the body away.

This strange woman is, as the title suggests, Dracula's daughter (Gloria Holden). Aided by her servant Sandor (Irving Pichel), she burns her father's body and carries out a strange ritual.

With her father dead, she has purged herself of the vampire's curse, and can now go on living as a normal woman.

Or so she believes. Just as Sandor predicts, she still dreads the light of the sun and still craves the blood of fresh victims each night.

The first victim is a young man out on the town. His murder baffles the police, and Von Helsing as well, since he is convinced that Dracula is the only one who could have perpetrated such a crime.

Insinuating herself into London society as Countess Marya Zaleska, Dracula's daughter meets Jeffrey Garth, who claims to be able to cure people of deep-seated obsessions. She wishes to meet him alone to discuss her own peculiar problem. The two are clearly drawn to each other, and Garth agrees to her request, much to the consternation of his secretary / love interest Janet (Marguerite Churchill).

But in the meantime her longing for blood becomes too strong, and she brings home a young woman named Lili (Nan Grey) with an offer of a modeling job. Soon Lili's body is found on the street, drained of blood and near death.

Because Lili appears to be in some sort of trance, Jeffrey Garth is brought in to consult. Garth manages to break the hypnotic block and finds out where the woman had been attacked. He's astonished to discover that it was a studio over a bookshop in Chelsea -- which is exactly where Countess Zaleska lives....

Comments: I've always loved the deliciously spooky films of Val Lewton, who directed the ultra-stylish Cat People (1942) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943). The atmospheric Dracula's Daughter, while not up to the level of a Lewton film, builds a similarly brooding mise-en-scene, a self-contained world of fog and shadows. So it's a bit surprising to learn that this film was directed by Lambert Hillyer, who spent his career grinding out undistinguished westerns and serials.

Dracula's Daughter is remembered today -- when it's remembered at all -- for its alleged lesbian subtext, particularly a scene in which Countess Zaleska hires a young woman to model for her, plies her with wine, asks her to undress, then hypnotizes her in preparation for a nice bite on the neck.

While film-studies types sometimes reach too far to claim gay or lesbian themes in movies, it's pretty blatant in Dracula's Daughter, surprisingly so for a film released in 1936. The scene in question clearly inspired a similar moment in The Hunger (1983) in which vampire Catherine Deneuve seduces Susan Sarandon over a glass of wine.

But in an apparent effort to throw the censors off the trail, screenwriter Garrett Fort dangles a hint of romantic attraction between Countess Zaleska and Jeffrey Garth, igniting the jealousy of Sandor, whom (we are told) had previously been promised eternal life by the Countess. This love triangle weakens the metaphor of vampirism-as-homosexuality, the dark secret that Countess Zaleska finds deeply shameful and seeks to be "cured" of.

Of course, the fact that the Countess wants to be cured at all chips away at her power as a character, because she turns to others for direction and comfort. Sandor and Garth are more active agents in the film than she is, and that's a great pity.

Liz Kingsley, in her masterful analysis of the film, suggests that Countess Zaleska might not be a vampire at all, but simply a delusional woman who has convinced others that she is one of the living dead. This seems a bit highbrow and psychological for the 1930s, but it's interesting that we don't see anything resembling supernatural powers in Countess Zaleska. She never turns into a bat or disappears in a puff of smoke. And if she was truly made a vampire by Count Dracula, why was she not freed from the curse when he was destroyed?

But no matter how you interpret the character, the choice of Gloria Holden for the title role was inspired. She has a strange, regal sort of beauty, and maintains a slightly unnatural bearing throughout -- you never see her blink, for example -- and the scenes where she hypnotizes her victims are particularly effective.

Irving Pichel is effective too as the unnerving Sandor. Pichel had a middling career in character parts, finding greater success later as a producer and director.

Otto Kruger actually got top billing in this movie, though he is not particularly notable as Garth. Nan Grey does a good job conveying vulnerability as the down-on-her-luck Lili, and it's good to see Edward Van Sloan reprise his role from Dracula (1931), though oddly enough he now has the name "Von Helsing". The screenwriter apparently forgot his name was Van Helsing in the previous film, and no one seemed to notice.


kochillt said...

Let us not forget that in the Tod Browning DRACULA, Lugosi's vampire first attacks Renfield (not in the Spanish version), so the homosexuality/bisexuality dual theme had already been present originally. It's nice to see Edward Van Sloan again (the only actor other than Peter Cushing to repeat the role), with Irving Pichel providing most of the intrigue, apart from lovely Texas-born Nan Gray. The sequel is extremely low key, unfortunately similar to WEREWOLF OF LONDON with all the ridiculous upper class party guests that really drag down the entire film. The childish rebuttals between Otto Kruger and Marguerite Churchill were really the last straw. One audacious sequence depicting a female vampire's seduction of a teenage girl cannot make up for the film's numerous failings, none of which can be placed on director Lambert Hillyer, a Western specialist quite efficient at delivering atmosphere (see THE INVISIBLE RAY).

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