Another week in October! That means we need to take the time to focus on the reason for the season: horror sequels that aren’t that bad! Oh and since you probably won’t have trick-or-treating, since the world has been taken over by the children of the town leaders in Footloose who somehow crossbred with the Omega House’s descendants from Animal House, be sure that everyone grabs their own bag of Reese’s peanut butter cups and chows them down. Hell, don’t even take off the wrapper. We’ve all earned it.
Again, thanks to those of you out there in the Interwebnets who have continued to read this earthshattering blog despite horribly late to the point of nonexistent updates! You are the backbone of an amazing experience. As of right now, I’m signing you all up for a (Something) of the Month Club. (Once I pick what the something is, you’ll know. I don’t want to tip my hand, but be sure you all have an aquarium in good working order.)
Oh and spoilers are throughout. This movie is 84 years old as I write this. Now’s your chance to…well, I’ve warned you!
The Sequel: Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
Original Movie: Dracula (1931)
Key Cast/Production Staff Returning from 1st Installment:
|Edward Van Sloan||as Professor Van (Von?!) Helsing|
|Jack P. Pierce||Makeup Artist|
|John P. Fulton||Visual Effects|
To Start With:
“Superstition? Who can define the boundary line between the superstition of yesterday and the scientific fact of tomorrow?”
Universal Studios established itself as the place where horror movies could thrive. They had success in the 1920s with The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, but in the 1930s they released horror hit after horror hit. Just look at this line-up: Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Old Dark House, Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Invisible Man, The Black Cat, Werewolf of London, Bride of Frankenstein, The Raven. Macabre yet fun, these films defined Universal and were for bread-and-butter earners for the studio. They helped solidify the careers of directors like James Whale and Tod Browning and they made stars out of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.
Speaking of Bela, this particular horror cycle kicked off with him in the titular role of Dracula in 1931. It was a tremendous hit and together with Frankenstein, it convinced studio founder Carl Laemmle that perhaps his son, Universal production head Carl Laemmle Jr., was on to something. (And yes, Universal in those days involved more nepotism than the membership requirements to be in the Marx Brothers.)
Nowadays it is taken for granted that success breeds sequels coming out within ten minutes of the first movie, but that wasn’t necessarily the case 90 years ago. Frankenstein was an exception, given that it made money hand over fist for Universal. They couldn’t get that sequel started fast enough and after finally getting Boris Karloff back with director James Whale, 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein became a bona fide classic in its own right.
The film that became Dracula’s Daughter had a similar gestation. But without the involvement of director Tod Browning, who made the ever-interesting and ever-controversial Freaks and somehow still managed to be a director after that, and star Bela Lugosi, who seemed to be on a downward career slide as soon as Frankenstein was released, the sequel didn’t come easy. There was also some fighting over filming rights as well as Universal finding itself in dire straits financially, which meant the sequel took longer to come to market.
When the film finally arrived in 1936, Universal had changed. The Laemmles were out of the studio they founded, a new, not-related-to-each-other management team came in, and horror films were no longer part of the new Universal’s future. (Well…until they saw that re-releasing Dracula and Frankenstein in theaters made a lot of cash so they went ahead and made 1939’s Son of Frankenstein, but that’s a story for another day.)
But what of Dracula’s Daughter? The timing of the original release came when Universal was taken over, none of the movie’s characters became classic icons, and it just seemed destined to be just another movie in the endless Dracula collections that the current Universal pumps out on discs every single year.
I think it deserves more respect. Somehow the Bride became a classic horror icon by being in Bride of Frankenstein for about 1½ minutes, but Dracula’s Daughter, who is in plenty of the runtime of her own movie, gets skipped over? Where’s her action figure?! Where’s her Madeleine Kahn parody? Well, no longer, I say! Granted, this film is not without its flaws. However, it is easily the best of Universal’s Dracula sequels as well as being a good entry amongst the other films in the Universal classic horror cycle.
Anything Done Better than the Original?
“You know, this is the first woman’s flat I’ve been in that didn’t have at least twenty mirrors in it.”
The pacing is much quicker and this film really moves in comparison to Dracula. Dracula’s Daughter is just like Halloween II, Friday the 13th Part III, and Phantasm IV, in that it takes place immediately after the events of the preceding film. No need to build a universe, no need to establish shots of anything. Starting with Renfield’s still warm body at the bottom of the stairs that Dracula threw him down and Van Helsing just finishing his stake driving activity, we are in right away.
Now don’t get me wrong. The original Dracula does take its time, but for most of that film, especially the first half, I can give a pass. The opening all the way through to the ship coming to England is drenched with atmosphere to the point where you can smell the musty decay, feel the damp fog, and think you’re in the hall with those armadillos (don’t ask if you don’t know).
With Dracula’s Daughter, the atmosphere is there at the start. Granted, some of that is immediate residue from the previous movie, but along the way this sequel earns its own keep. The cinematography is dark, the feeling of dread is there.
I always admire a sequel that doesn’t feel the need to rehash events of the preceding movie. It just pads the runtime unnecessarily. Instead, Dracula’s Daughter says, “Welcome! We’re assuming that you’re here because you already know this stuff. Moving on with our story!” (I guess what I’m saying in a roundabout way is that you don’t need every damn Batman movie showing Bruce’s parents getting whacked. Can we get to him beating the snot out of The Penguin now?)
Anything as Good as the Original?
“Possibly there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your psychiatry, Mr. Garth.”
Gloria Holden, as Dracula’s daughter Countess Zaleska, is very good despite being in what she considered a thankless lead part in a horror movie. For her first starring role, she does incredibly well, carrying the film as she portrays vampirism as an addiction and a curse. She elicits our pity at times and our sympathies are with her in a way that never existed with her famous ruthless father. Holden also comes across as quite exotic with a sensuality that is palpable.
Having Edward Van Sloan return from Dracula was a wise move, even though I wished they had given him more to do. I can even ignore the fact that in the five minutes between movies, his hair grew quite a bit from his original crew cut. That’s mere quibbling. But having him named Von Helsing instead of the correct Van Helsing is frustrating. (How did the screenwriter, who wrote both films, let that error slip? I don’t care what the cast list says, I am calling him Van Helsing in this post.)
Van Helsing is still in full vampire-killing mode. Even his being arrested for murder at the start of the film doesn’t distract him from the righteousness of his staking Dracula to his casket. Van Sloan is great again, truly a model for what Dr. Loomis would be in the Halloween series. He gives no quarter, only caring about destroying the evil!
Special mention for Irving Pichel as Zaleska’s manservant, Sandor. This could have just been a tossed off role, but Sandor is actually more malevolent than Zaleska at times. She is fighting her vampirism, while he is encouraging it. It makes for an interesting dynamic. Besides, Dracula had the gibbering Renfield, Zaleska has the coolly menacing Sandor. Nothing against the marvelous Dwight Frye, but I think Zaleska came out ahead in the deal.
Anything Not-So-Good as the Original?
“Well, at any rate a good tramp over the moors and the smell of the heather may help me forget London, and case histories of neurotic ladies.”
Otto Kruger as Dr. Garth, our main protagonist, doesn’t really it do it for me. Yes, David Manners in Dracula is a bit of a stiff, but at least he wasn’t too irritating. I think the script was trying to invest some color into Garth to at least make him more interesting to play, but he comes off as a kind of a dink. The less said about his condescension on the female gender the better. Normally, this wouldn’t bother me as I realize that 1936 was a different time in regards to dames and skirts. Besides, if the lines were good and sharp, I’d turn a blind eye. However, they’re just barbs for the sake of being barbs and not clever.
Come to think of it, Kruger actually would make for a better villain. Check out Hitchcock’s Saboteur to see what I mean. I’ll wait. No, go ahead. Finished? Excellent! See what I mean? Kruger comes across as a classic Hitchcock villain. He just exudes this smug, smooth confidence of being three steps ahead of everyone else. When he applies this quality to a bad guy role, you love to hate him. When he applies this to a good guy role, you just hate him. Now have Kruger actually as someone shielding Zaleska, with an urbane veneer that conceals the malevolent darkness within and that would have been quite the plot twist!
Would it have been that hard to use the shots of Dracula’s castle and such from Dracula? Just for continuity? Same goes for the village near the castle. Suddenly the townsfolk can now see the castle from their courtyard. This means that as soon as Dracula left for England a few weeks ago, apparently the local citizenry pulled up their stakes and rebuilt their town to within a football field of the castle towers. Or again, continuity wasn’t at a premium with this installment.
Anything Far Worse than the Original?
“Get me my heavy topcoat and revolver. I’m going out after vampires!”
Any time a film of this sort includes “funny” cops to act as “comic relief”, my eyes roll back into my head, my arms cross furtively, and I completely check out of the film. Dracula avoids this by having a “funny” attendant looking after Renfield, but no wacky London bobbies. But Dracula’s Daughter has examples of the goofy police force throughout.
Even the Scotland Yard officer bends towards his version of wit, almost wanting to use phrases like “Dash it all!” with tones usually found around his fourth brandy as he trips over his moustache on the way to the snooker table at his club. “Stuff and nonsense old chap; this is tommyrot!”
There is one titanic issue I have with the start of this film. Van Helsing is arrested because two cops show up for some reason at Carfax Abbey in the immediate aftermath of Dracula. So the cops see the staked Dracula, Van Helsing admits he did it, so they take him in. Scotland Yard wants to nail him for murder and so that’s why Van Helsing drags his former student Dr. Garth into this to defend him and away we go…
…BUT, and it is such an important “but” that I italicized it, where in the hell is Jonathan Harker? Where is Mina? Where is Dr. Seward? Van Helsing helped save Mina, who is Harker’s fiancé as well as Seward’s daughter, and yet none of them can come to testify on Van Helsing’s behalf? Instead they just let him twist in the wind as Sir Britisher Englander VI from Scotland Yard harrumphs all over the good Professor’s vampire-staking? Ungrateful bastards!
“Dracula’s destroyed. His body’s in ashes. The spell is broken.”
After this entry, direct Dracula follow-ups weren’t really a priority for Universal. The new Universal couldn’t stop cranking out Mummy or the Invisible Man sequels fast enough throughout the 1940s. Dracula more or less became a supporting character in a series of Avengers-like crossovers in one big monster shared universe.
1943 saw the next official Dracula sequel, the imaginatively titled Son of Dracula. Now I’ve nothing really against Lon Chaney, Jr. When given the right part, the right direction, he was a fine actor. Check out Of Mice and Men or High Noon if you don’t believe me; I’ll wait again. Ah, you’re back? Good. See what I meant with Chaney in those movies? He’s good, right? Yes, indeed.
To that end, Chaney was a marvelous Larry Talbot, the Wolf Man. He was okay as the Mummy and passable as the Frankenstein monster. But as kin of the smooth and slick Lugosi-type vampire? After Holden’s tortured and nuanced performance? Unless the Dracula family tree has some lunkhead branches like any normal family, Chaney is a casting misstep. Since he played the tormented Talbot so well, the character could have at least been constructed with that in mind to reflect Chaney’s skills. But the script does him no favors, and Chaney’s out of his element.
After the success of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man in 1943, having more and more monster team-up films was assured. Universal pressed on and made 1944’s House of Frankenstein and 1945’s House of Dracula. John Carradine took the role of Dracula, such as it was, in these entries. At least we’re a bit closer in appearance for Dracula, Carradine being rather gaunt and cadaverous after all. But he still isn’t the Universal Dracula, the one who just reeks of sophistication and mystery. Carradine just reeks like he should be the town’s undertaker in a John Ford western instead of being the dark lord of the vampires.
Then there was one last go-round: 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. While I’m not really an Abbott and Costello fan, this film is rather fun. Chaney is back as the Wolf Man and…Lugosi is back as Count Dracula! (It only took 17 years! Sheesh, Universal. What, was Carradine just too big of a name to pass on with the earlier installments? Sheesh again, Universal.) For being a last hurrah with the Universal horror characters, they come off just fine and the humor works. I even had the chance to see this film with a theater audience a few years ago, and it still plays very well, despite having Abbott and Costello in it.
“Someone… something that reaches out from beyond the grave and fills me with horrible impulses.”
Ultimately time has been kind to Dracula’s Daughter. It is a hidden gem to be sure. Oh it isn’t rough and tumble like The Wolf Man or filled with directorial wizardry like Bride of Frankenstein, it is a quieter film. By taking the time to go over the idea of vampirism as an addiction, this is where the film shines. The acting is subtle as well, there’s no real scenery chewers amongst our principals. Holden certainly needs to be given a lot of credit for playing this role straight, bringing pathos throughout. Dracula loved to hunt for victims, Dracula’s daughter is compelled to do so the same.
Speaking of playing something “straight”, let’s talk about the elephant in the room about this film. In recent years, the sexual orientation of Countess Zaleska has become a focus point for the movie. Some saying that this is a pioneering film in regards to certain scenes, namely when Zaleska essentially seduces a female victim. I suppose this is true, given what could be shown during the censorship and Production Code of the day.
That being said, Zaleska does attack a male victim earlier in the movie. She also wants to keep Dr. Garth around forever. Zaleska seems to be more like a predator that doesn’t really care about a victim’s orientation when she gives into her addictions. Blood is blood to her. Her dad was the same way as he presumably pounced all over his vampire brides in his castle before moving over to Renfield and the entire male crew of the Vesta and then later giving his attention to Lucy and Mina in London.
I just feel that a scene does not necessarily a movie make. For instance, Bullitt does have a groundbreaking car chase, but it is also a tight detective film that also deserves a closer look beyond the dueling horsepower. With Dracula’s Daughter, if you’re looking for it, it is certainly there; if you’re not looking for it, it is still there just not as much as you might be led to believe. So please take the film with a grain of garlic salt.
It was the end of an era at Universal and Dracula’s Daughter was a definite bookend to the first round of classic horror movies at the studio. Fortunately it was a well-made little film that is certainly worth another look.
Now…if you are looking for a full-fledged, red blooded lesbian vampire movie, I think you might want to dive into the 1970s Hammer Studios catalogue instead of the mid-1930s fare here. **cough…cough…The Vampire Lovers…cough…cough…** Ahem. Sorry, I had something stuck in my throat.
“Now look here. I’m tired of being annoyed after office hours. If you don’t stop calling me, I’ll come over there and, regardless of your sex, I’ll smack you in the nose!”