61 Days of Halloween: Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

One thing that’s a bit strange about Dracula as a property at Universal, at least through a modern person’s eyes, is that after the first film Dracula was done. Frankenstein was indestructible; The Wolf Man perpetually had his struggle between his two natures; the Creature is a victim always and The Mummy, is, of course, a mummy. So this is the one where it instantly deviated from its central figure once the first film was over. It had to because of its own pre-established rules about the nature of the vampire. However, many modern franchises have rewritten and retconned such things down the line.

With the fact that the original Count Dracula was out of the equation that would mean a new way to tell a vampire tale would have to be found, and naturally new descendants, similarly cursed would need to be found. Choosing a daughter first is an interesting choice for the time, however, the resourcefulness of the film doesn’t stop there.

The film introduces her as a woman, Countess Marya Zaleska, who seeks psychiatric consultation to free herself from an evil influence that she dances around explaining. So in this film there is a conscience and torn nature introduced to the equation. However, this is not the only duality introduced in this film. As I picked up on and this Sight on Sound piece elucidates:

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.

Now, at times, just the mere mention of subtext is enough to send some running for the hills. Don’t you worry about it none, this is most definitely not one of those films that you’d feel lost in without some kind of guide book. It actually starts just after the first one ends and introduces its character perfectly. The only thing it plays close-to-the-vest with the panache of figurative literalness (A phrase coined by the Hayes Committee for the implication, as opposed to statement of illicit details) is the aforementioned undertone.

As I recently mentioned, surprises are welcome in sequels and this one has a few of them which makes it worth checking out all by itself but they’re well-handled, too.

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