You can’t really say that Universal were particularly swift on capitalising on the first Dracula movie, especially when you consider that A) the first movie was made five years prior – an eternity in sequel years – and B) Dracula isn’t in this bloody movie at all save as a lifeless corpse. But in Dracula’s Daughter’s defence, it proves to contain a much more interesting premise than it’s predecessor that originally was “suggested” from a deleted chapter from Bram Stoker’s original which was then ultimately printed as a short story called Dracula’s Guest.
Essentially gender swapping the entire story and turning into an allegory about beating addiction while dusting it with notciable, lesbian overtones; Dracula’s Daughter may have turned out to be less fondly remembered than the Bela Lugosi original, but actually has far more going on in it’s veins than casual viewers give it credit for.
Following on directly from where the first movie ended, with the titular vampire going down for the (ahem) count thanks to the business end of Dr. Van Helsing’s hammer and stake, two bumbling bobbies arrest the doctor and cart him away for the murder of Dracula – “How long has been dead?” Demands one disbelieving copper, “About 500 years.” Van Helsing calmly retorts. Bringing the head of Scotland Yard – and the audience – up to speed, Van Helsing finds that either hanging or being committed to an asylum are the two likely outcomes to this mess as self defence against vampirism unsurprisingly isn’t something the courts choose to recognise.
However, after this news gets out, London gets a visit from the Countess Marya Zakeska, the daughter of the expired Count who sweeps around her abode, fretting about her very existence like a maniac depressed diva and puts up with the musings of her man servant Sandor, who looks like the lovechild of Pee Wee Herman and Lurch from The Addams Family and who is a massive downer. She spirits the body of her father away from the police station in order to burn it in an attempt to finally release her from the curse of vampirism that has made her life a living Tim Burton pencil sketch only to find that her thirst for blood remains firmly unsated.
Arriving into London to help exonerate his former teacher, psychiatrist Jeffery Garth aims to help Helsing beat his bad rap only for him and his besotted secretary Janet to get tangled on her web once her other attempts at beating her addiction fails. Whisking Janet away to in an attempt to lure Jeffery to Transylvania so she can turn him and need never be alone again (tough break, Sandor), Helsing must convince the police that he was entirely justified by hammering a chunk of wood into someone’s rib cage in order to be released in time to save Jeffery and Janet’s lives.
Considering that over at MGM at the time they were producing cookie cutter sequels that were alarmingly similar, Universal’s approach to it’s Dracula sequel is as fascinating as it is flawed. Compared to the infinitely superior Bride Of Frankenstein (released only a year before), Daughter is a much smaller and contained movie that seems to be carried out almost entirely in people’s drawing rooms and that suffers from lacking the cavernous, gothic atmosphere that Unversal’s horror pictures are renowned for. Yet while it lacks the epic sweeping style of James Whale’s cracks at Mary Shelley or even the creaking crypt of Tod Browing’s admittedly stilted Dracula, Dracula’s Daughter is so left-field for a horror sequel you can’t help but be drawn in despite the fact it doesn’t make a lick of sense.
The 500 year dead Dracula having a 100 year old daughter raises questions that the film simply can’t be bothered to answer (Did the Count knock someone up? Was Marya’s mother also a vampire? What’s the deal with vampire wombs anyway?) but it may have something to do with the film being rushed into production in order to stop the rights to Bram Stoker’s work switching to MGM, which led to a somewhat under cooked script that’s light on explanations.
While the story is fairly standard for this sort of thing, what holds your attention is the character of Marya Zakeska herself, a supernatural female being utterly loaded with complexities and whose striking presence boasts eyebrows so thin, Marlene Dietrich must have been planning to sue…
Played by the stunning bone structure of Gloria Holden, Zakeska is an artist at heart and where her father reveled in his blood drinking condition, Marya hates it and desperately fights the urge with little success which leads to massive bouts of awesomely melodramatic self loathing while Sandor stands by generally being unhelpful. She’s a fascinating creation who’s extremely alternative lifestyle at times even manages to be a clumsy but intriguing allegory for lesbianism. A scene where the Countess takes Jeffery’s psychiatric advice to unwisely confront her addiction head on and thus lures a young girl to her abode under the pretence of modeling, crackles with surprising sexual energy for 1936 as Zakeska “seduces” her victim with food and a boat load of hypnosis. Hinting that Vampirism is the metaphor of forbidden lust is only a small part of the Countess’ baggage as her solution to her problem is to essentially force her psychiatrist into loving her in a way to stabilise a life – which then tips us into the realms of suggested mental illness as our villainess attempts ever more extreme plots to desperately get some stability in her life. The fact that this character isn’t more of a recognized icon is actually a real shame – think about it, an insecure, sexually fluid goth with identity issues who kidnaps her shrink at a last ditch attempt at love only to be killed by her male, simp companion (dammit Sandor!) would go down like fucking gangbusters today in the era of Riverdale, Sabrina and 50 Shades Of Grey and Holden’s gloriously imperfect creation should really be standing shoulder to shoulder with her sister in pain, The Bride Of Frankenstein.
An off beat sequel that discards it’s original almost as much as it embraces it (Zakeska even gets to utter the immortal callback “I never drink… wine”), Dracula’s Daughter is a strangely quiet film compared to the grandeur of it’s predecessor and it’s fascinatingly three dimentional lead character seems to be destined, like many tragically confused daughters, to live in the shadow of her more famous father.