When Universal’s Dracula was released in 1931 vampires were a relatively underexplored creature of genre films. Sure you had Nosferatu, which was released a full nine years before, but Dracula was the first film to feature a blood sucking fiend that made a killing at the box office. Universal was quick to capitalize on the surprise success of Dracula and several sequels (some in name only) were made. There was Son of Dracula (‘Alucard’ is all I need to say about that one), Dracula’s Daughter, House of Dracula, House of Frankenstein (which featured all the Universal monsters) and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. While most of those films are disposable fodder, Dracula’s Daughter stands out from the pack as not only being entertaining, but also being the one sequel that had as much influence as its predecessor.
Released in 1936 and written by Garrett Ford and directed by Lambert Hillyer, Daughter was the first direct sequel to Dracula produced by Universal. The story picks up mere minutes after Dracula ended; the Count had just been staked by Professor Van Helsing (a returning Edward Van Sloan) who was then arrested by Scotland Yard on counts of murder. Van Helsing coolly explains to the baffled police that while he had indeed killed Dracula it cannot be considered murder as the count had already been dead for over 500 years. While Van Helsing calls his psychiatrist friend Dr. Garth (Otto Kruger (no relation to Freddy)) to help bail him out, Countess Marya Zaleska (AKA Dracula’s Daughter played by Gloria Holden) steals her father’s body and burns it, hoping to sever her familial curse. Her arson is all for naught as she realizes that she still quenches blood and her urge to feast is getting stronger. Giving in to her urges she roams the dark London streets looking for victims, whom she hypnotizes with her large jeweled ring.
What’s that you say? Sounds pedestrian? Am I making the movie seem more than the sum of its parts? Hold on there tonto, I’ll get to the point in a minute. You see while in Dracula the count preyed mostly on attractive members of the opposite sex, Countess Zaleska’s victims tend to be of the same sex. Dracula’s Daughter is in fact the first vampire film that shows any hint of fanged homosexual preference. This notion is perfectly illustrated in the pivotal scene where the Countess asks her manservant Sandor (Irving Pichel) to fetch her a model to paint. In comes Lilli (Nan Grey), a slender beauty with jazz age hair. While the Countess tries to contain her urge to feed she begins to paint the comely model, who has propped herself against a wall. As Lilli tries various poses to find the right one that appeals to her painter’s liking she makes the mistake of lowering her conservative dress, nearly exposing her breasts in a scene that must have set the censors in a tizzy at the time. The Countess, seeing such delicate bare flesh, cannot contain herself any longer and approaches the young lady with a look of lust in her eye. After she hypnotizes Lilli with that giant ring of hers she begins to bite. While the scene’s subtext flew by audience’s heads at the time of release, the obvious underpinnings of Countess Zaleska’s lesbianism is blatantly obvious to modern viewers. Thus the Countess’ vain attempt to fight her urge for blood can be seen as a metaphor for what the Countess is truly trying to fight, her urge to be with other women, which, if you think is controversial now, just imagine what it must have been like seventy seven years ago.
Around the time the film was released Dr. Theodore Malkin (a professor) wrote and published an essay that equated the vampire from literature and cinema to the “predatory nature of homosexuals” (Poupard). While misguided in nature, the link between vampires and homosexuality has grown even more prominent. Hammer Studios even formed a niche in evocative and expertly made films that featured lesbian vampires (particularly The Vampire Lovers and Lust for a Vampire). The lesbian theme was the most overt until The Lost Boys and, more importantly, Neil Jordon’s Interview with the Vampire (based on Anne Rice’s erotic Vampire Chronicles series) came along that male homosexuality became more pronounced within the vampire mythos.
While Dracula’s Daughter may at times be cheesy and suffers from laughable dialogue (which seemed to be the de rigueur of films at the time), the film truly is atmospheric and Holden’s subdued performance as the Countess is truly one for the books. The inclusion of the homosexual subtexts elevates the film from being just another run of the mill sequel and, while not as important as its predecessor, it still merits a viewing.