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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Retro Review: Dracula's Daughter (1936)

Easily the most underrated of the entire Universal horror cycle, Lambert Hillyer's atmospheric sequel to the classic Tod Browning original is a hidden gem and a treat for any old-school monster movie fan who discovers it, much like myself. Made a full half decade after the Bela Lugosi adaptation, it is a completely different movie and a very inventive continuation which also manages to push the envelope quite a bit, especially in the newly established Hays Code era.

I first discovered the film thanks to the old AMC Monstervision in the 1990s, and of course, like so many lovers of this picture, the element which instantly drew me in was Gloria Holden's mesmerizing performance as Countess Marya Zaleska, Drac's aforementioned daughter and a hell of an effective movie vampire in her own right. I've always felt that the character, and Holden's portrayal of it, was a direct precursor to the groundbreaking stuff that Anne Rice would do with the vampire ethos some 40 years later in print.

Following the death of her infamous father at the hands of Van Helsing, the Countess turns up in London and absconds with the body, believing that by destroying it she can rid herself of the curse of her vampirism. This is one of the earliest examples in popular vampire lore of the self-loathing vampire--a trope which has now become quite commonplace thanks to the work of Rice and others. Zaleska does not wish to be a vampire, and will try anything to cure herself, even psychiatry (which one would think would be a tall order as far as getting her heart beating again...)

It's certainly been mentioned many times before, but the film flirts quite openly with themes of lesbianism, as the Countess seems to prefer female victims to male. This is most directly explored in the very evocative scene in which Zaleska takes a beautiful young woman to her residence under the pretense of wanting to use her as an art model. It's the sort of thing that I'd wager only made it past the holy rollers on the censorship committees because they were too provincial to even get what was going on in the subtext.

In addition to Holden, also very effective is Irving Pichel as Zaleska's inscrutable manservant, Sandor. The film is highlighted as well by the work of Universal stalwarts Jack Pierce in the makeup chair, and brilliant set designer Albert S. D'Agostino.

This would be the only sequel to Tod Browning's Dracula made during the period before Universal switched its horror film production to the B-movie division. Following Daughter, we would get Lon Chaney in Son of Dracula, which although a lot of fun, is a decided step down from its previous two predecessors. From there, John Carradine would take on the cape as the Count in the campy House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. For my money, Dracula's Daughter is the only sequel worthy of being associated with the original.

I encourage you to seek out Dracula's Daughter. Like Werewolf of London, Son of Frankenstein and The Mummy's Hand, it is one of those films in the Universal canon that deserve far more attention than it gets. A thoroughly modern vampire movie, it has a lot more in common with the genre in latter decades than it does with the horror flicks of its own time, and is one of the last of the truly great Universal monster movies.

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