by David Cornelius
There is so much I want to like about “Dracula’s Daughter,” the 1936 sequel to the landmark 1931 horror film, and yet the film is so clumsy and so off the mark that it winds up being a throwaway piece, something for Universal Monster completists only.Here’s what’s to like: in a daring move, screenwriter Garrett Fort (building off several studio writers’ previous treatments) aims to make the villain of the story pitiable, with her vampirism presented as a psychological condition from which she desperately wishes to break free. This is an unexpected and welcome direction for a series that could have simply resurrected Dracula and let him repeat his old tricks. Here, the casting of a emotionally troubled woman as the “monster” allows for greater character depth - as well as a greater dose of underlying sexuality most needed in a vampire yarn.
"A major letdown."
And yet this idea and the way it weaves itself into the plot isn’t strong enough to keep the movie from stumbling over itself. The film hit theaters at the tail end of a tidal wave of horror successes - Universal had given audiences “Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” “The Mummy,” “The Invisible Man,” and its first monster sequel, “The Bride of Frankenstein,” not to mention dozens of second-tier (but mostly just as solid) titles. “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” especially had burned themselves into the popular subconscious, and they were burning deeper with each passing year. By 1936, “Dracula” had been around for five long, powerful years. It had become a tough act to follow.
Worse, in those five years, moviemaking had evolved all too quickly, styles changing, growing. The 1931 film, coming in the early years of sound, could rely on long stretches of ominous silence and a strong visual flair. The 1936 film, meanwhile, presents itself in an entirely different style, with heavy comic relief, longer stretches of dialogue, and characters who bring a bit of the modern era with them. (We even get to see the hero pull a pistol from his trench coat, an image far removed from the gothic ways of the original film.)
While such a style might have fit at the time, it hasn’t aged well at all. And when you watch “Dracula’s Daughter” as an immediate follow-up to “Dracula,” the differences are even more striking. The broad comedy seems completely out of place, the modern setting doesn’t feel like it fits at all, the last minute attempts at gothic terror come off as a poorly planned last gasp. This is a film caught at what now appears to be the tired tail end of a busy movie cycle.
Intended as a film version of Stoker’s “Dracula’s Guest,” a chapter from his famous novel that was cut due to length and later reissued as a separate short story, “Dracula’s Daughter” went through the usual Hollywood production hassles until it came out, via Fort’s script, looking nothing at all like Stoker’s work. Indeed, the screenplay instead opts to kick off the sequel immediately following the events of the first movie. Professor Van Helsing (Edward van Sloan, the only returning cast member) - oddly listed in the film’s credits as “Von Helsing,” just one sign of the film’s sloppiness - has been arrested for the murder of Dracula, although he’s quite honest in telling authorities he was merely slaying a deadly vampire. But Dracula’s body has been stolen… and cremated. Meanwhile, the mysterious Countess Zaleska (Gloria Holden) has arrived in London, but with what agenda?
Right there, you’ve got me wanting to like this movie again. The notion of everyday police getting involved with supernatural dealings, a vampire dusting viewed as a bloody murder, is inventive enough to get one’s attention. Like Zaleska’s obsession with psychology, this, too, is a clever twist keeping a franchise from becoming stale.
But then it all begins to fall apart, and not just because of the annoying bobbies brought in to deliver forced, obnoxious, unfunny comic relief. Consider how the film seems to set itself in modern day 1936. While no timeline was actually given for “Dracula,” its early scenes set in the old country suggest a past tense. (The sheer vagueness of its timeframe added to its shadowy allure.) By throwing this gothic tale abruptly and without warning into the present, it loses its edge. After all, Dracula is about castles and cobwebs, not studio apartments and automobiles.
Then there’s the issue of Holden, whose Zaleska has since been interpreted as a gay icon. Yes, there’s plenty of suggested lesbianism here, and I admire the film’s courage in bringing such subject matter to the table. But neither Holden nor her character are up to the task of following in Lugosi’s shoes. Zaleska, naughty sex aside, is far too dull a character - when it comes time to bring in all that psychological stuff, it comes off as melodramatic whining, not the desperate pleas of a tormented immortal soul. Where’s the tragedy? And by the time she (finally) strikes, it’s a flat moment that aims for seduction but winds up with yawns. This should be the series’ sexiest moment, and yet it disappoints. Fort’s screenplay lets us down by penning a villain who’s simply not worth watching. And Holden? Just watch as poor Holden has to trip her way through repeating the famous “I never drink… wine” line (she shoos the line off, as if the quicker she can say it, the quicker we’ll be done comparing her to Lugosi).
The supporting players are just as limp. With Van Helsing (I’m sorry - Von Helsing) given little to do but pop in and offer commentary from time to time, we’re left with Otto Kruger as a bland psychiatrist, Marguerite Churchill as his bland assistant (they bicker a lot, which is supposed to alleviate the blandness - it doesn’t), and Gilbert Emery as a bland doctor something-or-other. Meanwhile, Irving Pichel shows up as Zaleska’s weird manservant, although his greased down, parted-in-the-middle hairdo and caked on makeup leave him looking like Shemp Howard on a bad day, which doesn’t fair well if you’re trying to take things seriously.“Dracula’s Daughter” is, in the end, a series of lost opportunities. With a poor script, a cast that looks uninterested in the material, and a director (western veteran Lambert Hillyer) unable to deliver the gothic imagery required for such a title, the movie refuses to live up to its forerunner. Unlike “The Bride of Frankenstein,” which maintained the quality of its predecessor, “Dracula’s Daughter” send its own franchise plummeting to the quality of a third-rate B picture. While it might work for those looking for a campy gay icon or a complete portrait of Universal’s famous vampire and his family tree, it fails as solid horror entertainment.
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originally posted: 10/13/05 04:53:17