Universal’s official sequel to their inaugural pre-Hays Code smash hit Dracula (1931) is broadly considered to have brought the fledgling horror genre’s initial “Golden Age” of talking pictures full circle. The Code was in full force by the time of its production, and the “horror film” (by this point the epithet had stuck) was looking increasingly unlike an “A-budget” proposition for the studio, much less a prestigious one. Not only this, but the guiding hand behind the sequence, head of production Carl Laemmle Jr had recently been ousted as the result of a string of (non-horror) financial flops, along with his illustrious father, one of the studio’s founders.
End-point of a “golden age” or not, one thing is for sure: Lambert Hillyer’s Dracula’s Daughter (1936) seems like an incredibly odd way to go about a sequel to one of Universal’s biggest successes, with the absence of that film’s titular antagonist, director (thanks largely to 1932’s Freaks), and star, and a very different set of emphases. Although claiming Bram Stoker’s “Dracula’s Guest” (essentially an excised chapter from Stoker’s famous novel) as its source material, Garrett Ford’s screenplay in fact works from an original treatment by John Balderstone, co-author of the 1924 Dracula stage adaptation that had formed the basis of 1931 film.
The results are interesting. The film opens at Carfax Abbey mere seconds after the climax of Dracula, with two music-hall-esque policemen arriving just as Van Helsing (for some reason here Von Helsing, again played with relish by Edward Van Sloan, the only returning member of the original film’s cast) has put paid to the arch vampire’s reign of terror by method of a stake to the heart. The professor goes willingly when promptly arrested for murder, but luckily for him his social status is such that he’s able to have a congenial sit-down chat in the office of Scotland Yard commissioner Sir Basil Humphrey (Gilbert Emery), wherein he requests legal representation from eminent psychiatrist Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger), his former student, in favour of an actual solicitor.
Back in Whitby, the mysterious Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) appears at the police station, a magnificent apparition shrouded in black from head to toe, only her mesmeric eyes visible. After hypnotizing the ineffectual “bobby” on guard, she spirits away the Count’s corpse, leading us to the film’s most memorable, and perhaps most crucial, scene. On a beautifully rendered mist-laden forest set, Zaleska burns her father’s (the details of her actual genealogy are never satisfactorily explained) corpse on a pyre, in what is both funeral and banishment ritual. Perhaps surprisingly, she brandishes a cross as she performs her incantations, but has to avert her eyes from it, of course.
But it is her next lines, spoken to her servant Sandor (as played by almost-horror-star Irving Pichel) that provide the real key to the subsequent drama. “Free!” she exclaims, jubilantly. “Free forever! Do you understand what that means, Sandor? Free to live as a woman. Free to take my place in the bright world of the living, instead of among the shadows of the dead.” “Perhaps,” says Sandor, his first line of dialogue. “This night has almost gone. Who knows what another will bring?”
Thus we have our situation: Zaleska craves to live as a normal woman and be rid of her deviant desires. Garth is dragged away from a grouse-shooting holiday to defend ‘Von’ Helsing, but in returning to London also happens to come into the orbit of Zaleska at a high-society gathering. “Sympathetic treatment will release the mind from any obsession,” he informs the assemblage of insufferable toffs, echoing the contemporary belief that sexual diversity was a form of mental illness that could be “cured” by means of psychiatry. On hearing this, Zaleska immediately believes that Garth holds the key to her salvation.
The gay overtones of Dracula’s Daughter have been noted at length, most famously in Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet, and are made most explicit in the scene where street girl Lili (Nan Gray) is procured by Sandor, ostensibly to pose for Zaleska while she paints a portrait. This of course is both the vampire and the film’s pretext for Lili to undress, and as she does so Zaleska advances towards her, aching desire written all over her slightly mannish face.
The Countess doesn’t restrict herself to women, claiming a male victim on the street and resolving to take Garth for herself as a male “bride” when her plans for redemption are thwarted. She represents the Other in a number of ways: a bisexual, deviant blood-drinker and, let’s not forget, an immigrant to boot. Lock up your daughters and your sons! As such she both repelled and fascinated audiences audiences of the day, something the studio was only too happy to tap into, judging by the original poster’s tagline : “She gives you that Weird Feeling.”
But the film qualifies more as a wonderfully “gay” text in that she’s the consummate outsider, and once unfettered from her perceived need to be “normal,” she is empowered – for the short time that the film can possibly allow her to get away with this, at least. And who that has struggled with his or her sexuality has not been torn at some point between what they actually want and what society at large deems acceptable or “decent”?
The Dracula/Renfield dynamic of the first film is completely turned on its head, as Sandor, while devoted to Zaleska, seems to have long ago tired of simple sycophancy, affecting more the air of a world-weary, bitchy old queen that knows the Countess better than she knows herself. His overly made-up and coiffured appearance does nothing to contradict this. As they hide out above a Chelsea book shop on the night following her father’s funeral-banishment, Zaleska states that she “can live a normal life now. Think normal things. I can even play normal music again.” As she attempts a cheery tune on a piano, we are treated to this priceless exchange:
Zaleska:“Twilight. Long shadows on the hillside.”
Sandor: “Evil shadows.”
Zaleska:“The flutter of wings in the treetops.”
Sandor: “The wings of bats.”
Sandor:“Your music tells of the dark. Evil things… shadowy places.”
Zaleska:“What do you see in my eyes?”
As intimated above, her later liberation from this desire for simple conformity cannot last long. Jealous of her new focus on Garth, Sandor ends her un-life with an arrow to the heart, but not before trying to “penetrate” Garth in this manner from up on Castle Dracula’s ramparts. Authority figures Von Helsing and Sir Basil arrive in the nick of time to save Garth and his fiancée-cum-girl-friday, Janet (Marguerite Churchill), from the same fate, allowing the two more socially acceptable lovers to resume their playful, healthy, almost Thin Man-esque relationship. Any threat to the heteronormative status quo is neutralised by the time the words “A Good Cast is Worth Repeating” appear on the screen.
Although coy by today’s standards, all things considered it’s a wonder that Dracula’s Daughter managed to slip through the fingers of the Production Code’s enforcers at all. The then-Vice President of the BBFC fumed that the film “would require the resources of a dozen more languages to adequately express its beastliness” and considered it “absolutely unfit for exhibition as a film,” which says something about its impact on the day’s appointed moral guardians, but it was likely viewed merely as a bit of spooky fun by most cinema-goers. Today we can see Zaleska as the grandmother of subsequent sapphic female vampires in the works of Vadim, Rollin, Franco, and others, that the changing times allowed to be a good deal more forthright in their expressions of love and lust.
It’s a tantalising fact that Dracula’s Daughter was originally to have been directed by the openly gay but infinitely more “A-list” James Whale; fans of the genre can only dream about how the film would have turned out under his often outrageous guiding hand. If Zaleska ever does return, perhaps as part of the current incarnation of the studio’s new “Universe,” let’s just hope it isn’t as some gun-toting, latex-clad refugee from the Underworld series. Our dark Universal Countess deserves much better than that.