Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

Dracula's Daughter
Count Yorga, Vampire Trailer




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If you’re interested in the history of queer representation in film, then I recommend Dracula’s Daughter (1936). Like so many movies from this archive, it’s a frustrating watch because same-sex desire must be expressed circuitously, rendered monstrous, and ultimately punished. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that the lesbian vampire dies in the end. This trajectory is what I would expect from a movie made in 1936, and its predictability doesn’t fully explain my lack of enthusiasm for what should have been an amazing entry in the genre. The bigger issue is that I’m bored by its austerity. If you read Tracy’s Terrors, then you know I prefer vampire movies that adhere to the rules of Stoker’s classic and (over)indulge in the trappings of gothic horror. Yes, Dracula’s Daughter features a dramatic midnight cremation in the cemetery but, without biting or blood, the film is pretty spare. 

When the Countess Marya Zaleska learns that Dr. Von Helsing has driven a stake through Dracula’s heart, she’s sure that the death of her progenitor will free her from the curse of vampirism. But she’s wrong, and her insatiable lust for blood continues. Seeking a modern cure for her old affliction, she entreats London psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey Garth, a former student of the now incarcerated Von Helsing, to rid her of an unhealthy, though unspecified, obsession. Over the course of their brief acquaintance, bloodless bodies begin to attract the attention of the police. Dr. Garth suspects that the crimes are connected to his new patient’s mysterious desires; and he’s about to confront her when–in a ploy to entrap him–she abducts his assistant, Janet Blake, and returns to Transylvania. He follows her there and is presented with an ultimatum: Unless he agrees to be the Countess’s eternal companion, Janet will die. At first, the Countess’ gambit seems like a miscalculation because, throughout the film, Dr. Garth treats Janet like dirt. But in a sudden change of heart, he loves her and is willing to sacrifice himself for her safety. Before he can submit to the Countess’s deadly kiss, however, Sandor, her jealous servant, dispatches the vampire with an arrow. Unlike Renfield, the devoted familiar who would never dream of harming his master, Sandor acts in accordance with a dude logic that’s at least as old as the vampire myth: The Countess had promised him immortality; and if he can’t have her gift, then no one will. 

Dracula’s Daughter is frustrating to watch because the characters never do what you want them to do. That’s not unusual in horror, a genre in which, as Sidney Prescott observes, victims are “always running up the stairs when [they] should be running out the front door.” But while it’s fun to see characters’ impulsive missteps play into the hands of serial killers, it’s depressing to watch them deliberately deny their core desires and efface themselves. Countess Marya Zaleska is most compelling when she takes up all the space and fully occupies her position as a vampire. The highpoints of the film occur when she embraces her true nature as an absolute boss, overpowering the Keystone cop in the beginning and threatening Dr. Garth at the end. Unfortunately, for the majority of the film, we’re in the valley between these peaks, a low place of self-loathing in which the vampire seeks to “cure” her amazing powers. In her role as an invalid, a woman seeking medical help for a “problem,” which is really her own strength, the Countess shrinks, becoming anxious, vacant-eyed, and far less interesting to watch.

In this diminished form, she continues to strenuously oppose her own desires by pursuing the doctor as a romantic interest. I know that straight narratives must prevail in a film from this era, but the cage of heteronormativity falls especially hard and clumsily in Dracula’s Daughter. The relationship between the Countess and Dr. Garth is detached and stilted with none of the electric eroticism that we see between her and Lili, a suicidal young woman who is plucked from the streets to pose topless in her studio. From this charged encounter, we know that the Countess is capable of feeling a deep sexual yearning which is why it’s so unconvincing when she abruptly decides–a cool word but passion doesn’t play into it–that Dr. Garth must be her lover. 

Dr. Garth, for his part, seems to hate all women–living or undead. But the film pushes the old and dangerous idea that if a man treats you poorly, it’s because he loves you; the boy who punches you on the playground has a crush. In this case, the playground victim is Janet, Dr. Garth’s assistant. Despite her obvious fondness for him, he’s irritated by her presence and goes so far as to make a “joke” about shooting her with a hunting rifle. And the interminable bow tie bit that places the two of them in close proximity only foregrounds the fact that they have zero chemistry. So you can imagine my exasperation when it’s revealed that his contempt for her actually conceals a deep affection. On a side note, Garth tosses out that, unlike your average secretary, Janet is an aristocrat–a duchess, baroness, or some such thing. Is the film trying to make a progressive statement about the dignity of work and the importance of women in the workforce? I don’t know. 

Annoyed by the characters’ implausible behavior, I was also disappointed by the film’s aesthetics. Any movie with “Dracula” in the title should spend at least a third of its runtime on long gloomy scenes in gothic settings like castles, cemeteries, and catacombs–you can make up arbitrary rules like this when writing for your own website–but, here, such eldritch places are secondary to bright and comfortable interiors. What’s even worse is that there’s no physical contact between the vampire and her prey and certainly no blood. While we see the prelude to the Countess’ feeding, we never witness the bite itself. And why must the Countess rely on a gaudy ring to glamour her victims? Dracula exercises power with a look, while she relies on feminine accessories. Her dependence on a hypnotically shimmering jewel suggests that she’s not a supernatural creature and threatens to tip the film into thriller territory. The horror cred of Dracula’s Daughter depends heavily on the Countess’ makeup. Encroaching on her hairline and accented with symmetrical flourishes along the temples, her eyebrows give her an undeniable genre look. Yet while those lofty brows are frightening, they’re not enough to save the film.