An intriguing–not wholly successfully–sequel, Dracula’s Daughter (1936) opens with Von Helsing (Edward Van Sloan, reprising his role from the 1931 film) being arrested for the murder of Count Dracula. The investigating Scotland Yard inspector understandably questions Von Helsing’s tale of vampirism and recommends he retain a barrister. Instead, the Dutch professor turns to renowned psychiatrist Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger), a former pupil.
Meanwhile, Dracula’s corpse is stolen from police headquarters and cremated by his daughter. Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) believes that, with her father’s destruction, “the spell is broken.” Alas, she soon realizes that she still cannot resist her thirst for blood. A chance encounter with Garth convinces her that the psychiatrist may be able to help her overcome her “addiction.” He agrees to treat her–without understanding the nature of her condition. Will Countess Dracula be cured? Will Von Helsing be executed for ridding the world of her evil father?
Good ideas abound in Dracula’s Daughter, though the final screenplay by Garrett Fort fails to flesh out most of them out. Part of the problem can be attributed to the script’s erratic development. When Universal Pictures first decided to mount a sequel to Dracula (1931), it approached screenwriter John L. Balderston, whose credits included the original, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and The Mummy (1932). Balderston’s treatment featured an evil vampiress, the murder of a baby, and a man being devoured by a wolf. Universal rejected it.
The studio then turned to R.C. Sherriff (The Invisible Man, Goodbye Mr. Chips) and Finlay Peter Dunne to develop a new script that resurrected Dracula. Lugosi was even signed to reprise Count Dracula, with the other leads to have been played by a 25-year-old Jane Wyatt and Cesar Romero. Unfortunately, that project was shelved and Garrett Fort, one of the writers on Frankenstein (1931), was assigned to adapt Bram Stoker’s short story Dracula’s Guest (though the screenplay retains nothing from the story except for the presence of a female vampire).
The introduction of a reluctant “monster” allows Dracula’s Daughter to stand out from other 1930s monster films. It was a theme that Universal milked for more lasting success with 1941’s The Wolf Man and its sequels, which featured Lon Chaney, Jr. as the unwilling werewolf. There’s a distinct difference between the two, of course. Whereas Chaney transformed into a creature with pure animal instincts, Gloria Holden’s vampire retains her human emotions at all times. She knows the distinction between right and wrong and constantly struggles to overcome her cravings for blood. She even goes to great lengths to secure Jeffrey Garth’s aid.
Countess Zaleska’s need for blood provides the film’s most notorious scene. Her henchman Sandor (Irving Pichel) picks up a poor young woman from the docks and convinces the girl to pose for his mistress. Playing the part of an artist, the Countess tries to resist her insatiable appetite for blood as the girl exposes her bare shoulders and neck. Ultimately, the vampire gives in to her addiction (though we never see the bite). Based mostly on this scene, some critics have suggested the presence of an underlying lesbian theme in Dracula’s Daughter (reinforced perhaps by the Countess’s later abduction of Garth’s female assistant).
Personally, I think this is an example of critics to trying to add context that just isn’t there. Countess Zaleska follows and kills a male victim earlier in the film, so she clearly show no gender preference in her choice of victims. Her abduction of Garth’s assistant (Marguerite Churchill) is motivated solely by her desire to get Garth to follow her back to Dracula’s castle and join her in eternal life. I do admit that that the aforementioned scene is visually stunning, with the dark-haired Countess cloaked in black while her blonde-haired victim wears a white slip.
Gloria Holden is a commanding presence as the title character. It became her best-known role in a career that never lived up to its promising beginnings (supporting roles in The Life of Emile Zola and Test Pilot). Otto Kruger makes a serviceable hero, reminding me of one of those well-meaning scientists from a 1950s science fiction film. Edward Van Sloan, who character’s name changed inexplicably from Van Helsing to Von Helsing, has little screen time. Marguerite Churchill plays her part as Garth’s girl Friday mostly for comic relief, which adds nothing to the film. Irving Pichel’s Sandor looks like an outcast from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Director Lambert Hillyer was a specialist in the Western genre, known best for helming William S. Hart silent films and “Wild Bill” Elliott “B” pictures. Surprisingly, he instills Dracula’s Daughter with a genuinely chilling atmosphere. He also capitalizes on the fact that, unlike the Victorian-set Dracula, his sequel takes place in contemporary times. The (then-) modern cars and traditionally foggy streets provide an effective visual contrast to one another.
Dracula’s Daughter cost over $278,000, a hefty budget for Universal at the time. It failed to find an audience at the box office and faded into obscurity for several decades. By the 1970s, though, it had been revived by a small group of admirers; it was even shown in a film course I took at Indiana University. While Dracula’s Daughter can’t compare to the finest horrors of the 1930s, it’s an interesting picture that’s definitely worth 70 minutes of your time.
(This article originally ran last Halloween on MovieFanFare, and we’ve brought it back from the grave to scare up more undead fun for you this year. Bwahahahaha)