Dracula's Daughter (U.S., 1936) * * 1/2
D: Lambert Hillyer
The first time I saw Dracula's Daughter, about two years ago, I loved it and thought it was some lost masterpiece of Universal Horror. But now that I've watched it again, I almost wonder if my earlier overreaction was due to the fact that I was plowing through all the Dracula, Frankenstein, and Wolf Man franchises at once, and Dracula's Daughter is certainly better than the "House of..." and "Son of..." monster mashes Universal made in the 40's. It's a good film, but not a great one; a great moment it stumbles across, like an amateur bowler who, out of sheer clumsiness, manages a strike, and saves himself from a lousy game.
Made five years after the Bela Lugosi/Tod Browning classic, Dracula's Daughter surprisingly picks up right where the former film left off, as Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) is arrested for the murders of Count Dracula and the asylum patient Renfield. Rather than calling Jonathan Harker, Mina Murray, and Dr. Seward as witnesses of the defense, Van Helsing summons Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger), a psychiatrist who can vouch for his sanity, but instead gets so caught up in his colleague's story that he begins to think one Countess Zaleska (Gloria Holden) might be a vampire as well. He's right, as we know; Zaleska recently journeyed from Transylvania to London to dispose of Dracula's body through Catholic ritual, hoping it will exorcise her own vampirism. That's what makes this Dracula film so unique: it really has no villain, since the vampire doesn't want to be one. Since the exorcism doesn't work, she resorts to psychiatry, so convinced by Jeffrey's arguments that any addiction can be overcome by human will. He asks that she put herself to the test, and this provides the movie's centerpiece and its most fascinating scene: the Countess, wishing to paint a portrait, asks her assistant Sandor to fetch her a subject off the street. He finds a young, pretty prostitute (well, she's most likely a prostitute--in this Code film, you have to read between the lines). The girl is brought to Zaleska's apartment. Zaleska is immediately infatuated with the girl, but tells her that the neck and shoulders must be bare. The girl replies easily she has no problem with that, and as soon as Zaleska sees her neck...she is overcome with lust, of either the blood or sexual variety. Fade to black.
It's difficult to make a vampire film in which a bite doesn't equal sex, which is why every film in which one male vampire bites another male vampire is deemed "homoerotic." (See Fright Night or Interview with the Vampire, in which it's intended, or every B-movie in which it isn't.) What makes this scene so fascinating is that it doesn't even attempt to be a straightforward "horror" confrontation between monster and victim. It's overflowing with sexual desire. Not until The Vampire Lovers (1970) would a lesbian theme intrude as prominently into a horror narrative (although that film, with its R license [i.e., X licence], couldn't touch the eloquence and repressed eroticism of this scene).
Admittedly, without the seduction scene it wouldn't be much of a film. There is very little horror or general horror atmosphere; it's not until the protagonists finally come to Castle Dracula in the climax that we're struck to see an amazing Gothic set with cobwebs flooding its corridors--so this is the world of Dracula, after all. Everything else is drawing-room mystery, without even a mystery. If it was a few years earlier and Tod Browning took the reigns, or a few years later and Val Lewton produced, we might have something here. But Dracula's Daughter is an oddity: a minor gem among the Universal series for its offbeat quality, but minor by most other standards. Its rote touches--clumsy comedy with the Scotland Yard detectives, quasi-snappy banter between Jeffrey and his gal Friday (a very good Marguerite Churchill)--look more tired by comparison to the unusual angle of the plot and the hints of sexual deviance. Oh well, at least the film exists, and the Wolf Man doesn't show up for a wrestling match.