Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

Image Source: Wrong Side of the Art

Synopsis: While giving solace to his old mentor Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger) makes the acquaintance of the mysterious Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) at a party. The Countess asks for Dr. Garth’s aid in curing her from an unspecified but apparently deadly “obsession.” However, Dr. Garth is too distracted by his nosy secretary Janet (Marguerite Churchill) to pay Zaleska much mind. Zaleska then lets Dr. Garth know that she requires no less than his full attention — by kidnapping Janet and imprisoning her in her Transylvanian estate.

Say, folks! If you’re interested in the topic of queer images in film, have I got an event for YOU! From June 18-22, Garbo Laughs (that’s me) and Pussy Goes Grrr will be hosting the Queer Film Blogathon. Check it out now to find out how you can contribute and even win prizes. The party simply won’t be the same without you!

Directed for Universal in 1936 by Lambert Hillyer, Dracula’s Daughter was the first direct sequel to the massive 1931 hit Dracula. Relevant to our theme here this week, it is also credited as the first big-screen usage of the “lesbian vampire” motif, a trope which dates all the way back to Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s 1872 Gothic novella Carmilla. The exploration of sapphic themes in fantasy fiction was relished as a way of including titillatingly-taboo scenes and imagery in a genre that was considered safe from censorship due to its disconnection from reality. Furthermore, the notion that the lesbian vampire uses mind control to seduce straight women or girls into becoming their love slaves is yet another way for straight men to construe lesbians as predatory whilst enjoying the erotic outcomes of their efforts.

Of course, being produced in 1936, Dracula’s Daughter fell under the oppressive censorship guidelines of the Hays Code, and therefore had to be a little more crafty about its erotic lesbian undertones. As it was, the original script, penned in 1935 by Invisible Man screenwriter R.C. Sheriff, was revised and rejected four times before being entirely abandoned and rewritten by Dracula screenwriter Garrett Fort. Even up to the time of filming, scenes were being submitted to Production Code Administration head Joseph Breen for final approval. Of the most infamous scene, in which Countess Zaleska lures the young Lili into her spiderweb by asking her to model, Breen said of the sequence as it was originally scripted:

The present suggestion that… Lili poses in the nude will be changed. She will be posing her neck and shoulders, and there will be no suggestion that she undresses, and there will be no exposure of her person. It was also stated that the present incomplete sequence will be followed by a scene in which Lili is taken to a hospital and there it will be definitely established that she has been attacked by a vampire. The whole sequence will be treated in such a way as to avoid any suggestion of perverse sexual desire on the part of Marya or of an attempted sexual attack by her upon Lili.

Even shooting the scene to Breen’s puritanical specifications, the underlying message was still delivered and the scene still gives you that “weird feeling” mentioned in the film’s promotional poster.

(Incidentally, I should mention that Lili is played by Nan Grey of Three Smart Girls.)

What I find more interesting than Countess Zaleska’s implied lesbianism is her forced attraction for Dr. Jeffrey Garth. As soon as Garth begins spouting his scientific theories about releasing his patients of their harmful mental obsessions, the Countess is desperate for him to cure her of her impulsive vampirism, to the point where she kidnaps and threatens to do bodily harm to his secretary Janet if Garth does not stay with her in Transylvania to work on her own “release.” To me this harkens back very much to the classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder; Zaleska does not want to be a vampire/lesbian and she looks to the psychiatrist Dr. Garth to cure her of her obsession with bloodsucking/women. But there’s more to it than that. When Countess Zaleska invites Dr. Garth over to her apartment to ask for his assistance, she specifically states that she desires his help “as a man of strength and courage.” More than a psychiatrist, what Zeleska believes she needs to “cure” her is a strong man, thus her desire to force Garth into running away with her. Her confession to her creepy manservant Sandor about sharing her “eternal life” with Garth can be interpreted as her expressing her intentions to have heterosexual sex with the doctor. She can’t share eternal life with Sandor because he already knows what she is and accepts and encourages it, which isn’t what Zaleska wants for herself. She does not believe an ineffectual man who will let her control him is the cure for her “obsession.”

Overall Dracula’s Daughter is a spooky little gem that goes heavy on the atmosphere. Though the cinematography and acting are both above par, I still think it’s more entertaining as a historical curiosity than as a horror film. There are definitely a lot of interesting subtextual implications to be read into the film, but if you’re not willing to put that much brain power into it, it’s kind of a slow creeper at best. Interesting in the context of queer theory; not so much as a standalone picture.

Dracula’s Daughter (1936) – 3/5 stars

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Image Source: MovieGoods

Synopsis: On a dark and stormy night, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley beg Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Elsa Lanchester) to continue her story of Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his Monster (Boris Karloff). Picking up where she left off, Shelley reveals that neither the doctor nor his abominable creation died at the hands of angry villagers, but in fact both survived the windmill blaze that was intended to signal their doom. Frankenstein is brought back to his bride Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson) and vows to cease all efforts to create life, except within the more traditional bounds of marriage. However, he is quickly tempted back into his old diabolical ways by the charismatic Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), who proposes an even deadlier plan: to create a female version of the Monster, with the hopes that their two unnatural offspring will procreate, spawning “a new world of gods and monsters.”

James Whale‘s sequel to 1931’s Frankenstein is oft noted for its camp sensibility and homosexual undertones, although it is fervently denied by many who personally knew the openly-gay director that these motifs were intentional. It doesn’t matter whether Whale intended his film to act as a sly commentary on sexual mores or not; films are living, breathing beings, which are open to an infinite number of interpretations depending on when and where the movie is seen as well as the lived experiences of those seeing it. Like the Monster itself, Bride of Frankenstein is its own entity which was out of Whale’s control as soon as the chains were off. The entire field of film theory would be obsolete if each movie had one correct reading and one only. I say, if it makes the film more entertaining for you to construe queer undertones, go for it. As for me, it always does.

It’s alive, and it’s faaaaaabulous!

That being said, there are some truly delicious moments of camp here. Although the prologue is very brief, Gavin Gordon as Lord Byron clearly had a lot of fun in his role. But it’s Dr. Pretorius who really pulls out all the stops and is the character that has most grabbed history’s attention. Thesiger truly relishes his diabolical role, and it’s obvious. Whether he’s dining with skulls in a crypt or begging Dr. Frankenstein to “reconsider” his plans to marry Elizabeth, Pretorius is a joy to watch from beginning to end. The moments of over-the-top creepy silliness (and even outright humor) are tempered by stretches of action and even some of extreme poignancy, most notably the famous sequence in which the Monster meets and befriends a blind hermit. All throughout, the cinematography is truly eye-catching and beautiful, a testament to Whale’s ability to grab the viewer’s attention and never let go.

However, I expected to like this film a lot more than I actually did. When Whale resorted to standard horror fare, I just found myself bored and wondering when the Bride would be revealed. Then again, this film really set the standard for that horror fare, so maybe it isn’t quite just to criticize it for being cliché. After all, it’s not the movie’s fault if every other horror film afterward copied from it. Still, I have to consider the film in the context of my own experiences, and I can’t deny that I was disappointed. A beautiful movie, for sure, and worth watching without a doubt. It’s just a shame that Bride of Frankenstein was spoiled for me by all the copycats that came after.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935) – 3.5/5 stars

White Elephant Blogathon: The Return of Count Yorga (1971)

Image Source: MovieGoods

Synopsis: The safety of the children and teachers of the Westwood Orphanage is put into jeopardy when deadly vampire Count Yorga (Robert Quarry) moves in next door. Taking a shine to the lovely Cynthia (Mariette Hartley), Yorga sends his bevy of undead brides to make her his next victim — by killing off her entire family and convincing her that she is recovering from a car accident and must stay in Yorga’s mansion while she gets well.

 This film was assigned to me by another sadistic participant in the White Elephant Blogathon, hosted by Silly Hats Only. Now in its sixth year, the WE seeks to showcase “cinema’s widows and orphans – notorious stinkers, cult favorites, so-bad-they’re-great classics, and movies that time almost forgot.” Check out Silly Hats for the contributions, including a review of the film I submitted, 1978’s movie musical adaptation of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, starring Alice Cooper, Peter Frampton, and the Bee Gees.

What, you thought I could get actually get something done on a deadline? APRIL FOOLS! Haha, but seriously, I’m terrible.

I was actually quite pleased this year when I saw that my White Elephant assignment was from the 1970s. Even though I hate the ’70s, at least a film of this era is more fitting to my blog’s M.O. than last year’s atrocious faux-meaningful 2003 Chinese drama Feeding Boys (Aye Carumba!). So, after quickly skimming the film to make sure it didn’t have any horribly unnecessary sexual violence (which I find is sadly a common motif in 1970s horror and something I refuse to put myself through on principle), I dove head-first into The Return of Count Yorga, knowing nothing of the previous film to which I assume it is a sequel and with my hands at the ready in case of any really scary parts.

Well, suffice it to say, I didn’t have any problems, so far as scariness goes.

The legendary Bob Kelljan (what, you haven’t heard of him?!?), who helmed the original Count Yorga, Vampire (1970) and would later go on to direct such classics as Scream Blacula Scream (1973) and the delightfully-titled Rape Squad (1974) which I’m sure is like totally empowering and not at all exploitative and cringe-inducing, returns to the Count Yorga legend with the very-accurately-titled Return of Count Yorga. Also returning to Return is Robert Quarry (I never knew Christopher Lee and Liberace had a baby!) as the titular Count. Despite the movie’s totally bitchin’ poster, he’s just basically your standard dime-store vampire, and does not sport any awesome green monster hands with eyes or a single giant taloned raptor foot like that one owl Pokémon. False advertising indeed!

“This is me and my sisters before we started using Proactiv/Pantene Pro-V/Invisalign.”

The film is troubled right off the bat by its very premise, which is the inexplicable return of a character who was supposedly killed at the end of the first movie. But the movie doesn’t waste any time in explaining how Yorga got his groove back. In fact, this movie really doesn’t waste any time in explaining anything. It’s set in an orphanage and there are some people having a costume party in a gymnasium for some reason; I don’t know who they are or why they are there. So it’s really hard to care when some of them start getting killed off by Yorga’s excruciatingly-slow-moving vampire brides. Seriously, if you’ve ever been frustrated at films that show perfectly healthy, normal adults who cannot seem to escape lurching, mindless, snail-paced zombies, this one will make you tear your hair out.

The only ghoul who really makes an effort here is Count Yorga himself, whose main tactical offense is to pop out at the ends of hallways and run REALLY REALLY FAST at his victims with his arms outstretched, until he reaches them and – strangles them. Yes. In 500+ years of being a vampire, this is the best attack he can come up with. There’s a reason why you haven’t heard much about Count Yorga; he is the vampire family’s greatest embarrassment. They have family reunions and “forget” to send his invitation.

It’s like he’s rushing to get the last donut in the break room.

There’s also a little boy running around who’s somehow under Yorga’s control, and a mute housekeeper who’s the only one who knows what’s really going on but is being gaslighted by everyone around her. In the middle of it all is some lady who Yorga’s trying to get to be his bride, and somehow I’m supposed to not want that to happen even though he’s already got about a dozen other brides and I’m really given no reason to value this lady’s mortality over anyone else’s because WHO IS SHE AND WHY SHOULD I CARE?!?

It’s… not a very good film, is what I’m trying to say. The page on which I took notes for my review includes such gems as: “What’s happening and why?”; “What are we even investigating?”; “Not so much a movie as a collection of scenes”; “THIS SUCKS” in huge letters; and notes on what we planned to order for dinner that night at the bottom of the page.

I didn’t like it. Half a star, and that’s generous.

The Return of Count Yorga (1971) – 0.5/5 stars

The Maze (1953)

Image Source: Wrong Side of the Art

Synopsis: Life for the newly-engaged Kitty Murray (Veronica Hurst) and Gerald MacTeam (Richard Carlson) couldn’t be any happier – until Gerald receives a letter notifying him of the death of his uncle. Now it is his duty to take on the role of baronet of Craven Castle in the Scottish highlands. It’s expected that Gerald will settle his business at Craven and then return to Kitty, but soon he makes it clear that he’s not coming back and that the engagement is off. The heartbroken Kitty and her supportive aunt Edith (Katherine Emery) pay an unannounced visit to Craven, where they find Gerald a prematurely-aged and altogether different man. Kitty tries her best to bring back the warm and good-humored Gerald she once knew, but all Gerald wants is for Kitty and Edith to leave Craven Castle. What is affecting Gerald? Could the MacTeam family secret lie in the forbidden hedge maze in the center of the castle grounds?

Based on a novel and originally filmed in 3D, The Maze was the final film by Oscar-winning art director and production designer William Cameron Menzies, who received an honorary award in 1940 for his outstanding use of color in a little picture known as Gone with the Wind. Despite the fact that Menzies had more than twice as many artistic credits as he did directorial roles, he was also at the helm of such notable movies as 1932’s Chandu the Magician and 1936’s Things to Come. For a man who at the time had been in the business for nearly forty years, practically since the beginning of the medium of film itself, Menzies clearly knew what he was doing with The Maze. Although the plot synopsis may make it sound like a schlocky low-budget B horror picture (not necessarily a bad thing!), The Maze is definitely aided by Menzies’ directorial experience and impeccable eye for detail. It’s a beautiful movie with some stunning cinematography; Craven Castle has so many inky, shadowy corners you might think you’re in a German Expressionist film from the ’20s, not an American monster movie from the ’50s. The players, all relatively unknown (to me, anyway), also help add to the spooky ambience of the picture and heighten the mystery. The narrator is Aunt Edith, and while Katherine Emery at this point was an accomplished character actress and stage performer, here she sort of gives you the impression that she’s played by someone’s actual Aunt Edith. It’s distracting but not too much; I suppose it just adds a hint of realism.

Doesn’t it ever occur to anybody to bring HEDGE CLIPPERS into one of these damn things?!?

It’s good that the atmosphere is so strong, because the film relies on it a lot to pass the time. That’s my way of saying that nothing much happens until the last ten minutes or so. While many reviewers complain that The Maze is too slow, I rather enjoyed the build up of suspense and thought that it helped those last ten minutes really pack a punch. I don’t want to spoil it too much – seeing as how the poster above specifically requests that I don’t give away the ending – but I will say that there is a monster at the center of the maze, and it is definitely worth the wait. I can’t say you’ll be scared, though, but hopefully you’ll be entertained. There’s also some very silly science in the last few scenes which I enjoyed probably too much. Overall I was pleasantly surprised by The Maze, which I had never heard of prior to stumbling across it on Netflix (which predicted I’d give it a very low rating). It’s a wonderfully eery little picture with the perfect hint of schlock thrown in for good measure. I can definitely see adding it to my annual must-watch Halloween roster.

The Maze (1953) – 3.5/5 stars

The Beast with Five Fingers (1946)

Synopsis: There’s conflict afoot in the house of pianist Francis Ingram (Victor Francen). His dedicated nursemaid Julie (Andrea King) has taken a shine to his dishonest cohort Bruce (Robert Alda), and his secretary Hilary (Peter Lorre) refuses to tear himself away from his astrological “research.” So when Ingram takes a spill down the stairs and dies late one night, nobody is really bothered. That is, until more people start to mysteriously expire, with suspicious black and blue fingerprints around their throats. Ingram’s piano music is heard playing throughout the house, and Hilary swears a part of the angry musician has returned from beyond the grave: his disembodied hand, ready to take vengeance on those who wronged him in life and continue to dishonor him after death. Are these the ravings of an antisocial lunatic, or is Ingram’s hand really running amok and killing off his enemies?

What a wholesale disappointment. The plot of this Robert Florey film sounded awesome, and it put the movie on my must-see list for a long time. But sadly, aside from an adorable severed hand which does crawl around and play the piano and do menacing things as promised, there’s nothing to it. The story starts with potential, and a mystery is anticipated, but instead of going that route it just completely gives you what you see and makes no effort to be surprising or suspenseful. The plot twist is that there is no plot twist; the person flashing the giant proverbial I AM THE MURDERER, I AM CRAZY, LOOK OUT FOR ME sign above his head from the very start turns out to be, surprise, the culprit. Sorry if I spoiled it for you, but really. Lorre is effective as always, but it’s a character you expect him to play, so while he’s good at it, it’s nothing really novel. According to screenwriter Curt Siodmak, the story was originally penned with Paul Henreid in mind, under the belief that a more handsome leading man would garner more sympathy from the audience, therefore making it harder to believe that he was crazy. While on a personal taste level I disagree on the issue of Henreid being more handsome than Lorre, I think he might be right. Having someone less suspicious in the role of the crazy person might’ve added at least a hint of mystery. But if the rest of the plot had been kept exactly the same, the film would’ve ended up losing a lot, as Peter Lorre is basically the best thing it’s got going for it. As for the rest of the cast, they fit the bill well enough, except for Robert Alda who is awful. Imagine Rod Sterling’s voice coming out of Robert Donat’s body. He’s supposed to be the smarmy-charmy crook who’s got everything figured out from a mile away and just sits back making sarcastic comments, but it’s his delivery that’s laughable. The atmosphere is nicely creepy at times but mostly the soundtrack and the acting make everything seem way too overblown and melodramatic. The ending – as in literally the last thirty seconds or so – will make you go, “Huh?!?” in a bad way, and might even make you wanna punch the screen. I know I did. I’ll give it points for the always-watchable Lorre and the fun special effects, but really, I expected a whole lot more out of this movie than what I got. Skip it.

The Beast with Five Fingers (1946) – 2.5/5 stars