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The woman in black
A region 1 DVD review of DRACULA'S DAUGHTER from Universal's Dracula: The Lecacy Collection by Slarek
 

It is almost inevitable that sequels will fail to live up to the originals that spawned them, and though this is also the case when dealing with most of the follow-ups to Tod Browning's 1931 Dracula, the first of them, Dracula's Daughter, is for dedicated genre fans actually superior on many fronts. Despite being the first sequel to the film that set the trend for vampire movies for years to come, Dracula's Daughter plays with the formula in a number of intriguing ways and is a faster paced and altogether more involving work.

A phenomenally important film in the development of the vampire genre, Dracula has not stood the test of time as well as it's Universal horror contemporary, James Whale's Frankenstein. Crucially, Whale's own sequel to Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, is now regarded as not only superior to the original, but the finest film in the Universal horror cycle and a cinematic classic in its own right. A box office smash at the time, its success in some ways led to the second wave of Universal horror films, many of which were sequels to earlier successes. Dracula's Daughter was originally set to be a fully fledged sequel to Dracula with Lugosi reprising his role as the Count, while James Whale, who was on a roll after Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein, was scheduled to direct. But following a very adverse reaction in the UK to the violence and gleeful sadism of the previous year's The Raven and the increasingly restrictive nature of the Production Code in America, Universal were looking to reduce their horror output. Dracula's Daughter was the first casualty of this policy change – the budget was cut, Whale and Lugosi departed, and what was originally planned as a major production instead became a supporting feature. All of which sounds like a recipe for a cheapjack knock-off, but a combination of inventive writing, smart direction and some workmanlike performances lift the film way above its supposed second-feature status and mark it as a vital work in the development of the vampire genre.

The story picks up exactly where Dracula left off, though the great expanse of the dungeons of Whitby's Carfax Abbey have been reduced here to the size of a roomy cellar. No matter, Van Helsing has dispatched Dracula via a stake through the heart and for those familiar with the first film there are two plus points: Van Helsing is again played by Edward Van Sloan and this time the results of his endeavours are visually evidenced – no off-screen groans here, we can plainly see that Dracula is dead and how he was killed. Enter two local bobbies and – hooray – one of them is played by a British actor with a believable accent (Universal regular E.E. Clive) as opposed to Charles K. Gerrard's Dick Van Dyke-like cockney asylum guard in Dracula. But then bobby number 2 opens his mouth and – groan – he's the dim-witted comedy relief (see also 1940's The Mummy's Hand for a further example of the distractingly unfunny comedy foil). Fortunately he's not in the film that much. More surprisingly, nor is Van Helsing – after being arrested for the murder of the Count, he disappears for much of the subsequent screen time and is restricted to offering warnings and advice when he does appear.

A short while later the title character enters the story, followed shortly by the somewhat inevitable hero and his girl. Familiar characters they may be, but they are considerably more lively than their equivalents in Dracula, where lead actor David Manners was given almost nothing to do as the close-to-useless Jonathan Harker. In Dracula's Daughter, Dr. Jeffrey Garth and his assistant and would-be girlfriend Janet Blake are pushed much more to the fore and are briskly performed by Otto Kruger and Margueritte Churchill. Their sometimes sparky banter echoes the wisecracking lead characters of a good many romantic comedy-dramas of the period and even the odd horror film, a personal favourtite example being Glenda Farrell's smart-talking reporter in Michael Curtiz's 1933 Mystery of the Wax Museum.

Young mistress Dracula herself, or Countess Marya Zaleska as she chooses to be known, is played with cool austerity by Gloria Holden and given plenty of screen time, and rightly so. Her very introduction throws up some interesting questions regarding the whole vampire legend, as until very recently few genre films have even touched on the idea of vampires having offspring or families – they were always portrayed as lone figures who took on brides, usually against their will, in a relationship that is suggested to have more to do with blood and dominance than procreation. The idea that their undead loins could produce little vampires is in itself subject for an interesting text, but is not touched on here – Dracula had a daughter and she's turned up to claim the body of her old, dead dad, and that's all we need to know. So the film scores a genre first with the introduction of a vampire offspring. But hold on a minute, there's another in the screen's first female vampire, at least the first independently minded one, as Dracula's brides were merely background characters under his control. When Marya takes a shine to Garth, we have a most interesting reversal of the Dracula tale, with the female vampire fixating on a potential male victim. A third feature that was to become something of a genre standard is Marya's moody, hulking manservant Sandor, not the laughing madman of Dwight Frye's Renfield but a physically imposing and protective figure who accompanies Marya everywhere and removes any obstacles that stand in her way, as well as procuring potential victims and cheerlessly reminding her just who she is when she is at her most optimistic. This was a character that was to re-occur in many later vampire tales, including Hammer's 1966 Dracula, Prince of Darkness and Robert Bob Kelljan's 1970 Count Yorga, Vampire, as well as being sent up nicely in Roman Polanski's 1967 Dance of the Vampires.

Marya differs from her father in that she is desperate to escape her fate as a vampire and become human, something she believes she can do by burning his body and purifying it with salt. Just to make sure he's sorted, she concludes the deal with a crucifix. It's a now familiar slice of vampire iconography, but genre enthusiasts will raise their eyebrows at this scene for two good reasons. First up, Dracula and the films that followed established that the crucifix does not just prompt vampires to turn away in fear, but will actually cause physical harm if brought into contact with vampire flesh, and yet Marya is able to safely wield this one bare-handed simply by averting her eyes. Secondly, the cross here is not the cast metal crucifix that prompted Dracula to dive under his cape in the earlier film but an improvised one constructed from wood and twine. Aficionados will know that it was Hammer's 1958 version of Dracula that dared to suggest that improvised crucifixes could be as deadly as the real deal, yet here we are in 1936 and the lore is already being messed with in similar fashion. Except that when you put these two elements together you get an interesting generic dilemma – either the vampire is able to hold this cross because a home-made (and thus unsanctified) crucifix is ineffective against her, and by association her father, or Marya is not a real vampire after all, just someone who believes she is. And you can read it which ever way you choose, as both interpretations work for the story. Marya uses the cross as a tool to free her of her father's curse, yet she is not free of it – is this because she used an ersatz tool instead of one that would have finished the job? Alternatively, if she is not a real vampire then Dr. Garth's attempt to psychoanalyse her in order to understand and perhaps cure her condition makes perfect sense. This subtextual suggestion that Marya may just believe she is a vampire and that the condition can be cured through psychiatric means instead of slamming a stake through her heart prefigures George Romero's Martin – which explored similar territory in more depth – by forty years. And if she is a vampire, then she is the first genre film character to make her own crucifix and one of the very few vampires to use it against her own kind.

But the most startling new element, given that the film was made during the censorious days of the Hays Code, is the twist given on the sexual subtext that is so central to the genre. It's not that we have a female vampire seducing a male victim – which alone would have been unusual for its day – but a female vampire seducing a female victim. And if the homo-erotic overtones of Count Orlock's attacks on Hutter in Nosferatu and the bedroom vistitations in Dracula are indistinct enough to be open to both interpretation and counter-attack, the seduction here is considerably more blatant. Homeless Lili is invited to Marya's studio on the pretext of being paid to pose for a portrait that requires the removal of clothing, and once Lili has complied, Marya gazes at her with a look of hungry longing that leaves very little to the imagination. When she advances on her and the camera tilts rapidly upwards to the sound of the girl's screams, it's difficult to believe that all she had in mind was a quick nibble on the neck.

The lesbian vampire, of course, has its roots in Sheridan Le Fanu's novella Carmilla, which was written in 1872, twenty-five years before Stoker completed Dracula. But in 1936, even the suggestion that a screen character might be anything but wholesomely heterosexual was virtually unthinkable, and the fact that this scene seems to have gone unmolested seems in retrospect extraordinary. It was to be another thirty-four years before Hammer were to really give the lesbian vampire story a serious (-ish) go with the 1970 The Vampire Lovers.

Dracula's Daughter lacks Lugosi's presence, makes surprisingly little use of Van Sloan, and does not have Dracula's primal battle of good against evil, but elsewhere this sprightly sequel scores some serious points off its predecessor. Niftily shot and edited – including an almost manic montage sequence towards the end – and with generally robust performances, the dialogue is at the very least serviceable and often much better than that and boasts its share of memorable moments: "Possibly there are more things in heaven and earth than are thought of in your psychiatry," Marya tells Garth at a dinner party when he dismisses the idea of vampires as superstition, and when Police Commissioner Sir Basil Humphrey, all of a fluster for having been dragged from cataloguing his stamp collection, informs his manservant that he needs his gun because his is to go out hunting for vampires, the man's dry response is that suggest that one usually goes after them with cheque books. Marya also gets to repeat one of Dracula's most famous lines – "I never drink...wine" – with almost disarming off-handedness, and the audience is reminded of a key piece of genre iconography when Garth, irritated at Janet for crookedly fixing his bow tie, claims that Marya's abode is "the first woman's flat I've been in that didn't have at least twenty mirrors in it."

The final ten minutes may be familiar in narrative terms – the chase to rescue the kidnapped girl – but screenwriter Garret Fort and director Lambert Hillyer add a thematic freshness by making the whole scene not about confrontation or the triumph of good over evil, but about love and sacrifice. Jeffrey flies to Transylvania and risks his own life in an attempt to rescue Janet, whom Marya, aware that she can never be freed from the curse of her father, has kidnapped in order to persuade Jeffrey to spend eternity with her, something Jeffrey is willing to do if it will spare Janet's life. Sandor meanwhile, who has presumably for some years dreamed of such a fate for himself, would rather kill the woman he loves than let her be joined to another. That he uses an arrow to pierce her heart and kill her is both a new twist on the concept of the vampire-killing stake and a dark inversion of the image of Cupid and his bow. It is to the writer and director's credit that that Marya remains a sympathetic figure up to the end, and a testament to Gloria Holden's performance and austere beauty that the prospect of spending eternity in her company most definitely has its up side.

sound and vision

The film does show its age in some ways – there are a fair number of dust spots and some (generally minor) flickering, plus the occasional scene in which faint frame jitter is evident. Minor damage to the print is evident throughout, but only on close inspection – a rather good job has been done of cleaning this up. Otherwise contrast is first rate and sharpness is often impressive. Daylight exterior scenes – and there are some – in particular look very good. Grain is detectable, but not a problem at all.

The mono soundtrack is on the whole very clean, with little in the way of hiss and no disarming pops or crackles. Obviously it lacks the fidelity and range of modern films, but for its age is fine.

extra features

As part of Universal's Dracula: The Legacy Collection release, the menus actually suggest that this very film is an extra feature in itself, but I regard this as a five film collection, of which this is a key inclusion. As such, there is only one extra feature specific to this film.

The Theatrical Trailer is presented 4:3 with mono sound, and though in far from perfect shape (I'm surprised it even exists at all after all this time) it is still very watchable, though the sort of black blobs that would interest Bill Morrison tend to dominate towards the end. It does give an interesting insight into how the film was marketed at the time – opening with terrified peasants exclaiming: "The castle!" and "Dracula! He's come back!" it most definitely sets itself up as a direct sequel, if a little misleadingly, as Dracula has most definitely not come back. The battle between Garth and Marya is also shown as a straight good vs. evil battle. The caption that claims that the film is "More exciting than 'Dracula'" is actually on the nose, though.

summary

This first sequel to Dracula is a fascinating and important genre work, shaking off the good vs. evil battle between vampire and hunter in order to suggest a more complex reading of the vampire tale, where eternal life is a curse that might just be tolerable if spent with someone you love. It tinkers with the then still-new vampire legend in fascinating ways, and offers up a number of interesting subtextual readings for genre fans. Perhaps most importantly, it succeeds as entertainment, boasting interesting characters and a pace and running time that simply does not allow a sympathetic audience to lose interest for a second.

Like George Melford's Spanish language Drácula, this film is not included on the recent UK region 2 release, and is another compelling reason to go for the region 1 box set. Highly recommended.

Dracula's Daughter

USA 1936
71 mins
director
Lambert Hillyer
starring
Otto Kruger
Gloria Holden
Margueritte Churchill
Edward Van Sloan
Gilbert Emery
Irving Pichel

DVD details
region 1
video
1.33:1
sound
Dolby mono 2.0
languages
English
subtitles
English for the hard of hearing
French
Spanish
extras
Trailer
distributor
Universal
review posted
13 June 2004

Dracula: The Legacy Collection
This Universal region 1 box set contains the following films. Click on the appropriate title to read a detailed review of that film.
Dracula
Drácula (Spanish language version)
Dracula's Daughter
Son of Dracula
House of Dracula

Trivia
Despite being referred to throughout the film by his correct name as Professor Van Helsing, Edward Van Sloan's character is listed on the end credits as being the more German sounding Professor von Helsing.
Lambert Hillyer was responsible for an extraordinary 163 films during his career as a director, often B-movie westerns or crime dramas. A remarkably prolific film-maker, in the three year period between 1932 and 1934 he directed twenty-one films. His 1936 flirtation with horror was brief – also that year he made The Invisible Ray with genre legends Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.
Screenwriter of Dracula's Daughter, Garrett Fort, was responsible for adaptating Hamilton Deane's stage version of Dracula further when it switched venues, and co-wrote the Spanish language version (with Dudley Murphy), and the screenplays of Frankenstein (with Francis Edward Faragoh) and Tod Browning's The Devil Doll (with Guy Endore).

See all of Slarek's reviews