As part of Universal Studios’ ongoing explorations of monsters and the horror genre in the ‘30s, they soon embraced the idea of the sequel with the unexpectedly successful Bride of Frankenstein (1935), introducing a gruesome yet sympathetic female monster (Elsa Lanchester, in an iconic performance). She paved the way for a more malicious female ghoul a year later with Dracula’s Daughter (1936). Essentially an attempt to cash in on Bride of Frankenstein’s success, Universal conjured up a sequel to Tod Browning’s 1931 classic. Though less critically acclaimed than its sire, the follow up re-imagined vampire genre tropes and blended a variety of cinematic and literary influences.
Dracula’s Daughter picks up immediately where its predecessor left off. Discovered in a crypt with the recently staked Count, Von Helsing (Edward Van Sloan, the only actor to reprise his role from the original) is arrested for murder. Scotland Yard obviously doesn’t believe he killed a vampire, so he asks his friend, an acclaimed psychiatrist (Otto Kruger), to be a character witness. Dr. Jeffrey Garth was once his student and prepares to defend him, despite many misgivings. Enter Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden), who steals Dracula’s body with the help of her sinister servant Sandor (Irving Pichel). Claiming to be Dracula’s daughter, she burns his corpse in an elaborate ritual with the intention of breaking the vampiric curse on her soul. Unfortunately this proves ineffective and Zaleska resumes her nightly hunt for blood. Soon she meets Garth and convinces him she suffers from a powerful affliction. He agrees to help her and is certain her malady is only psychological—which has disastrous results.
Dracula’s Daughter is emotionally bleak, steeped in Gothic atmosphere and full of melancholy in a way its predecessor failed to be. Holden carries the film with a mesmerizing, sympathetic performance, at once alluring and repulsive. The lack of genre cliches provides a fresh take on vampire cinema, one that would resurface later in horror history. This minor masterpiece seems to have had an influence on ‘60s and ‘70s Gothic horror in the British and Italian canons, such as Hammer’s Karnstein trilogy (1970-1971) and Bava’s satanic witchcraft masterpiece Black Sunday (1960). There are a number of elements in these later films that were presented for the first time in Dracula’s Daughter: Zaleska’s vampirism is portrayed as a blend of madness, female hysteria, sexual dysfunction, and addiction. She is a reluctant vampire, desperate to regain her mortality at any cost.
Though there are many deviations, Dracula’s Daughter has a number of similarities to its parent film and source novel. Like Lugosi’s Dracula, Zaleska is an attractive, charming aristocrat from Eastern Europe. She sleeps in a coffin, “never drinks… wine,” and abhors mirrors. She also has a penchant for wearing flowing, dark capes, staring intently, and speaking little. Lugosi and Holden both possess the camera, overwhelming the frame with facial close ups, showing a close resemblance between their hypnotic eyes, raven hair, and aquiline noses. Though Zaleska’s vampirism is less overt than Dracula’s, she is clearly a blood sucker, leaving puncture wounds on her dead or comatose victims. With the aid of a large moonstone ring, she uses hypnotism to get what she wants. The most obvious inspiration for Zaleska’s character derives from the three vampire women who are commonly referred to as Dracula’s brides, though their role in the novel is more nebulous and they are called sisters. Two of them are dark-haired and bear a close physical resemblance to Dracula. It is inferred that the third, a blonde, is their leader. In conversation with Jonathan Harker, Dracula claims to have loved these women in the past, though whether this is familial or romantic love is unclear. They are attractive, yet repulsive, due to their sexual exuberance and their voracious appetites for blood. In his journal, Jonathan Harker writes, “There was something about them that made me uneasy, some longing and at the same time some deadly fear. I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips.”
Allegedly Dracula’s Daughter is based on “Dracula’s Guest,” a short story by Bram Stoker that was believed to be the excised prologue from Dracula, though Stoker scholars are now skeptical of this claim. In reality, the plot similarities between Dracula’s Daughter and “Dracula’s Guest” are merely thematic, both revolving around a female vampire subordinate to Dracula. “Dracula’s Guest” opens with an unidentified Englishman visiting Germany on his way to Transylvania. Ignoring warnings from the locals, he explores an abandoned village on Walpurgisnacht. The horse pulling his carriage is scared off and he is forced to walk the long distance back to the hotel, alone in heavily falling snow. He takes shelter in some trees, but realizes he is in the middle of a cemetery, near a great tomb. There is a stake driven through the tomb, which belongs to Countess Dolingen of Gratz from Styria. Because of the impending storm, he is forced to take shelter in the mouth of the tomb, where he encounters a beautiful woman with red lips. A storm saves him from this mysteriously threatening woman and he wakes with a wolf on his chest, presumably protecting him from further dangers.
Though the original novel and filmic version of Dracula play an important formative role in the sequel, there are a number of other, earlier literary influences. Stoker’s fellow Irishman Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella Carmilla is an obvious inspiration, as are several texts from European fin de siecle literature and horror fiction from the early 1900s. Carmillia is set in the Styrian countryside (the home place of Stoker’s Countess Dolingen). A young woman named Laura meets Carmilla, who spontaneously comes to stay with Laura and her father after a carriage accident. The beautiful Carmilla is nocturnal, deeply secretive, possessive of Laura and makes occasional romantic advances towards her friend. Laura begins to have terrible nightmares of a cat-creature biting her chest and her health takes a turn for the worse. It is revealed that Carmilla is responsible and is actually a vampire, Countess Mircalla Karnstein. A small band of men join together to hunt down her tomb and destroy her in the hope that they can save Laura’s life in time.
Carmilla was the first “lesbian” vampire character and actually pre-dates Dracula by about 25 years. Like Stoker’s Lucy, Dolingen, and Zaleska, Carmilla is aristocratic, tall and thin with large, entrancing eyes and full, seductive lips. Carmilla, Lucy, and Dolingen have nocturnal habits and hunt at night. Both Carmilla and Dracula present a subversive, fluid sexuality where gender is distorted and there are links between monstrosity, homosexuality, hypersexuality, and hysteria. Zaleska’s character was also likely shaped by several horror stories in the early 1900s that depict tales of sexually aggressive, vampiric female characters—undoubtedly also inspired by Carmilla—such as the works of women writers like Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Mary Wilkins Freeman. As we’re so fond of writing about here at Diabolique, the demonic, sexualized vamp was a relatively popular trope in fin de siecle art and literature. A particular concern at the time was the concept of the New Woman, a financially, sexually, and emotionally independent being. This type of woman rejected concepts of motherhood and family values, which resulted in a number of literary works showing monstrous, sexually motivated female characters, as seen in French literary fiction like Rachilde’s Monsieur Vénus, the Marquise de Sade’s Juliette, and Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony or Salammbô. Artwork from the period also depicts pale, dark-haired female vampires, such as work from Edvard Munch, Henri Martin, Georges de Feure, and Philip Burne-Jones (among many, many others).
Zaleska’s unhappy plight is suggested to be a combination of disease, addiction and madness, all themes reflect in fin de siecle art. Vampirism was initially linked with depictions of disease in the nineteenth century, namely anemia, porphyria, tuberculosis, plague, and sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis. The latter in particular connects vampirism with the moral and physical decline feared by Victorian society. This subtext was revisited in the late ‘80s when a connection between HIV and vampirism was explored in numerous films and books. One of the first authors to do this, Anne Rice, has stated that some of her most important female vampire characters were inspired by Dracula’s Daughter.
Zaleska also has much in common with several of Oscar Wilde’s literary inventions. Like the titular character of his Salomé, she is “like a woman rising from a tomb… She is like a dead woman. One might fancy she was looking for dead things.” She is also similar to literary male libertines like the titular character of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, following the sort of “double life” associated with amoral but privileged young men. She keeps a separate apartment as a painting salon in a questionable neighborhood and under an assumed name, which is also where she seduces and feeds on vulnerable young women of lower classes.
Finally, it is necessary to briefly consider the influence that The Bride of Frankenstein had on Dracula’s Daughter. There are a number of plot similarities between these two female-centric sequels. Frankenstein’s monster strives to be a normal human, which he seeks to do by attaining a mate and gaining social acceptance. Zaleska also seeks to reject her monstrosity and become a normal woman. Frankenstein’s monster has a diabolical father, Pretorius, who controls and molds him, just as Dracula controls Zaleska from beyond the grave, “possessing” her consciousness, as she puts it. The Monster is ultimately rejected by his potential mate, who has been turned into an undead creature on his behalf. Zaleska nearly persuades Garth to accept her vampiric curse, but fate prevents this. The Bride of Frankenstein includes a gay subtext in the troubled relationship between Pretorius and Henry Frankenstein, while Dracula’s Daughter is much more overt with its homosexual subplot.
Dracula’s Daughter is a unique combination of influences that represent the best of horror in turn of the century art and literature. The film is an important, but sadly neglected part of the Dracula canon and helped shaped depictions of future female vampires and vampirism as a symbol for addiction, disease, or psychosis. And even after so many decades, she still “gives you that weird feeling!”