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.
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.
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