Dracula has always been one of my favorite horror characters since I was a child. Blame it on his fangs or his widow's peak hairline or the Dracula poster that would greet me as I stepped into the Old Town Spaghetti Factory rest room in my youth. I even made a Dracula model with my Dad. I dressed as Dracula for many Halloweens, a homemade cape courtesy of my Mom. Dracula just left a lasting impression on me. As embodied by Bela Lugosi, Dracula was urbane and sophisticated and very European but never forget, he is a vampire.
Universal Pictures was the horror hit factory in the 1930's. When FRANKENSTEIN (1931) starring Boris Karloff was a big hit, the studio followed up with an even better sequel by FRANKENSTEIN director James Whale called THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935). So when Tod Browning's DRACULA (also 1931) was released and made Bela Lugosi a bona fide horror star, fans expected a similar follow up sequel with Lugosi and the Dracula character. But Universal would balk at Lugosi's salary demand to play the count again. A copyright dispute with Dracula author Bram Stoker's estate would also delay the sequel. When Universal finally did come up with a sequel to DRACULA, neither Lugosi nor the character of Dracula (save for a quick insert of a Dracula mannequin in a coffin) were in it. Instead, Universal introduced us to DRACULA'S DAUGHTER (1936) starring Gloria Holden as Countess Marya Zaleska aka Dracula's offspring.
Since no DNA test was ever done, we'll never be able to prove if Zaleska is really Dracula's daughter but give Universal credit. Elsa Lanchester as the bride in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEN (if only for a few minutes) proved that there was room for women in the horror genre. Behold, the sequel to DRACULA becomes DRACULA'S DAUGHTER and Countess Zaleska the first female horror lead. Film nerds (and male film critics) have a particular fondness for female vampires and CrazyFilmGuy is no different. Female vampires can be sexy and sensual but let's not forget that DRACULA'S DAUGHTER was made in 1936. It doesn't ooze sensuality but it has its moments and paved the way for more modern sexy lady vampires in films like THE HUNGER (1983), BORDELLO OF BLOOD (1996), and VAN HELSING (2004).
Directed by the prolific but unheralded Lambert Hillyer with a screenplay by Garrett Fort based on a story idea by John Balderston (both were involved with the original DRACULA screenplay), DRACULA'S DAUGHTER picks up right where the 1931 DRACULA left off. Professor Von Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) stands over Dracula's coffin where he's just hammered a stake through his heart. Dracula's accomplice Renfield lies dead nearby. Two police constables Hawkins (Halliwell Hobbs) and Albert (Billy Bevan) come across the crime scene at Carfax Abbey and arrest Von Helsing, taking him to Scotland Yard on charges of murder. Von Helsing tries to explain to Scotland Yard's Sir Basil Humphrey (Gilbert Emery) that Dracula was a vampire. Humphrey is skeptical. Von Helsing asks for a former pupil of his, psychiatrist Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger), to defend him in court.
Albert watches over Dracula's body at Wickby Jail. With a wonderful dramatic entrance, a mysterious lady cloaked in black, only her piercing eyes uncovered, shows up to claim Dracula's body. She's Countess Marya Zaleska, Dracula's daughter. Zaleska hypnotizes Albert with a large ring on her finger and steals the body. Zaleska and her servant Sandor (Irving Pichel) cremate Dracula in some nearby woods. Zaleska's ecstatic as she believes with Dracula dead, his spell on her is broken. Sandor reminds her she's still a vampire and she still needs to drink human blood.
Garth's assistant, the spunky Janet Blake (Marguerite Churchill) brings Garth back to London from Scotland to defend Von Helsing. While attending a party thrown by London socialite Lady Esme Hammond (future gossip columnist Hedda Hopper), Garth meets Countess Zaleska, posing as a painter. Zaleska becomes smitten with Garth and feels his work on "mental release" in which a person releases their mind from an obsession may help cure her of her vampirism. Later, Sandor brings another victim to Zaleska, a young woman named Lili (Nan Gray) under the pretense that Zaleska will paint her portrait. But Zaleska pulls out the hypnotic ring and drinks Lili's blood instead.
Garth meets with Von Helsing and tells him about the mysterious deaths he's come across recently. Von Helsing believes another vampire is walking the streets of London. The Countess and Sandor kidnap Janet and race back to Transylvania with her. Garth charters a plane, pursuing them to Castle Dracula. Zaleska wishes to trade Janet's life for Garth's. Zaleska's in love with Garth and sees him as hope to rid her of her vampire curse or join her as one of the undead. The jealous Sandor tries to kill Garth with a wooden arrow. Von Helsing and Humphrey arrive at Castle Dracula to join Garth for a final showdown with Zaleska and Sandor.
DRACULA'S DAUGHTER won't make horror fans forget Bela Lugosi or the original DRACULA but it does have some things going for it. DRACULA'S DAUGHTER has a lighter tone than its predecessor. The bumbling police constables Hawkins and Albert are clearly meant for comic relief. And the rapid fire banter between Garth and Janet is reminiscent of couples in a screwball comedy. Director Hillyer keeps the pace moving faster than Tod Browning's silent movie style for DRACULA. Hillyer stages atmospheric horror scenes in the woods when Zaleska and Sandor cremate Dracula's body and later, back in Dracula's castle for the finale. Sandor is a nice addition as Zaleska's servant. He's devoted to her and reminds Zaleska of her promise to turn him into a vampire when the time is right. Sandor's archery skills prove lethal in the finale, a nice twist.
Horror enthusiasts like to point out the underlying eroticism and lesbian overtones in DRACULA'S DAUGHTER. Having watched the film as an adult, I can safely say that any sexuality to be found in the film is muted at best. The act of a vampire biting the neck of its victims is very erotic but DRACULA'S DAUGHTER avoids it like a wooden stake. The filmmakers never let Zaleska bite either a man or woman onscreen instead inventing a hypnotic ring for Zaleska to snare her victims before she snacks on them offscreen. Zaleska does wear a few low cut gowns (for 1936) but nothing overtly sexual. The one sexual scene is Zaleska's encounter with the runaway Lili. Zaleska asks Lili to remove her clothes so she can paint her. Lily starts to undress before she changes her mind. It's a tame sequence but intriguing nonetheless. Countess Zaleska will be the starting point for future, sexier female vampires that will emerge in the Hammer horror films of the 50's and 60's to today's TV female vampires in shows like THE VAMPIRE DIARIES.
As played by Gloria Holden, Zaleska could be the great grandmother to the more modern TV personality Elvira who also wore long black gowns and had black hair but with more cleavage for modern audiences. Holden as Zaleska is tall, statuesque, raven haired, with a husky voice, pale white skin and big round eyes. Unlike Dracula who reveled in having lived for 500 years, Zaleska is tormented by her 100 year old curse, wishing to be normal and free of her thirst for human blood. She's a tragic, sympathetic character for a good part of the film. This would be Holden's only horror film. Her other notable film role would be as Madame Zola in 1937's THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA.
The relationship between Zaleska and her servant/bodyguard Sandor played by Irving Pichel is one of the most interesting elements of DRACULA'S DAUGHTER. Sandor is like DRACULA'S Renfield although less crazy. Sandor worships his mistress, seeking victims for her like Lili. Is he a former jilted lover or a poor, aimless soul who pledged his allegiance to the countess's dark side? Whenever Zaleska talks about breaking her curse or finding a cure, Sandor brings her back to reality, reminding her only death will end her misery or human blood to keep her living. Sandor doesn't want her to die. Sandor reminds Zaleska she has promised to turn him into the undead. He holds her to that promise until he feels she's betrayed him in the end. Actor Pichel resembles modern actor Benicio Del Toro. Besides acting, Pichel was also a director. Pichel co-directed THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932) and directed DESTINATION MOON (1950).
For reasons never explained, Edward Van Sloan who played famed vampire hunter Professor Van Helsing in DRACULA returns in DRACULA'S DAUGHTER but his last name is now Von Helsing. The film never offers a reason for the slight variation. It may have been a brief casualty from the dispute with Dracula author Bram Stoker's estate. Von Helsing plays second fiddle in DRACULA'S DAUGHTER to psychiatrist Jeffrey Garth played by Otto Kruger. But Von Helsing is still the authority for convincing the unbelievers that vampires exist. Actor Van Sloan would chase another famous horror character in THE MUMMY (1932) starring Boris Karloff.
Otto Kruger brings humor and vigor as the lead in DRACULA'S DAUGHTER. Kruger's Jeffrey Garth is charismatic whether wooing vampires or verbally dueling with his feisty assistant/love interest Janet Blake (Marguerite Churchill). Churchill is an attractive sidekick who would appear in one other horror film THE WALKING DEAD (also 1936) with Boris Karloff and Henry Hull (WEREWOLF OF LONDON). The Kruger and Churchill duo bring much more energy than David Manners and Helen Chandler did in DRACULA.
Although Bela Lugosi does not appear as Dracula in DRACULA'S DAUGHTER, director Lambert Hillyer would direct Lugosi and Boris Karloff in Lambert's only other horror film credit THE INVISIBLE RAY (1936). Hillyer was never a well known director but he would have a long career that began with directing silent films including many Westerns in the 1920's with actor William S. Hart and would close his film directing career out moving to television in the 1950's.
When Universal chose not to rehire Bela Lugosi to don the cape for the sequel to DRACULA, horror fans (including yours truly) were denied a chance to see the man who immortalized the character play the Count one more time. Lugosi would don the cape a few more times in other films like MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935) and THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (1943) but as different vampires. But the absence of Lugosi provided an opportunity to introduce the first lead female vampire character in cinema with the Countess Zaleska as DRACULA'S DAUGHTER. Before Zaleska, we had only seen Dracula's brides and only briefly. Universal would try the offspring angle again in SON OF DRACULA (1943) with Lon Chaney Jr. as Count Alucard (Dracula spelled backwards). But Zaleska would not make moviegoers forget Lugosi and Dracula and DRACULA'S DAUGHTER would be her one and only appearance. So stay up late one evening, lock the doors and window, set out the garlic and wolfsbane, and treat yourself to DRACULA'S DAUGHTER, the first lady of the night, the queen of the undead.