By JUSTIN MCDEVITT
Lesbians are used to slim pickings. In New York City, there are only three lesbian bars (one is very good, one is very mean, and one is in Brooklyn), so it is not surprising that in my desire to cover a horror film with lesbian subtext, overtones, and undertones (frankly all of those things are the same to me), I had to go way back to 1936, get really disappointed, call up a lesbian friend to talk me through it, then six weeks later give the movie another shot.
This week I’m dishing on the first direct sequel to Tod Browning’s Dracula, DRACULA’S DAUGHTER (1936). Starring Otto Kruger (Saboteur), Gloria Holden (The Life of Emile Zola), Marguerite Churchill (The Big Trail), and Edward Van Sloan (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy), with a guest appearance by Hedda Hopper, and directed by Lambert Hillyer, who has over one hundred credits to his name, yet I don’t recognize a single film.
Picking up right where the events of the first film left off, Van Helsing (Van Sloan) heads off to Scotland Yard to explain what happened with that Count he just did murder to. Meanwhile, a mysterious woman called Countess Marya Zaleska (Holden) arrives to burn the body. It turns out: Dracula has a daughter who doesn’t want to be like her father anymore. Countess Zaleska tries to rid herself of what’s been deep inside her all along, but when she realizes she can’t erase who she is (dare I say, she was born that way), she decides to make Dr. Jeffrey Garth (Kruger) her vampire companion.
This movie is a bit cheeky in that it forces the hero to face the repercussions from the last movie. We are taught that the goal of a horror film is to off the killer during the final chase sequence. But really, if you’re the only one who survives, you’re setting yourself up for a lifetime of suspicion, paperwork, and interviews with Gale Weathers. If nobody believes you, then you’re just the dude standing around a bunch of dead bodies. DRACULA’S DAUGHTER opens, rather hilariously, with the arrest of Van Helsing for the murder of Count Dracula, which he tries to very logically explain. Psh. You killed my nice Count friend! Van Helsing does his best to explain vampirism to Scotland Yard. He describes vampires as “Creatures who have never died, who prolong their unnatural lives by draining the blood of the living. When daylight comes, they must return to their graves or die.” Yeah, you just described the past decade of my life working at a gay bar on Christopher St.
Much like the final girls of the Friday the 13th series, Van Helsing doesn’t make more than a single special guest appearance before the action shifts to our new peeps. Countess Marya Zaleska arrives to dispose of her father’s body. She wears a face covering and hooded cloak. Only her eyes are visible (the better to mesmerize you with, my dear). She is instantly seductive, flirtatious, and powerful. But if I were Michelle Visage critiquing the runway look, I’d be forced to concede that for how badass and regal the Countess looks, she is not giving me vampire at all; DRACULA’S DAUGHTER doesn’t lean into the horror or supernatural and I wish it did.
Her first mission is to burn Dracula’s body in a foggy part of the forest that looks a little bit like the Bachelor Mansion at night. After burning his body, the Countess believes she will be free of her vampire curse. For shame! Unfortunately for her, not only is she still a vampire but she’s forced to feed on men to stay alive, something that she clearly loathes. She doesn’t want to be “bad” anymore. The subtext is so cringe-worthy in its clumsy transparency it reminds me of when I was still closeted and dropping not-so-subtle hints to my friends… like when I saw Wes Craven’s Red Eye and spent forty-five uninterrupted minutes telling my friend how “inspiring” Cillian Murphy was.
Dr. Jeffrey Garth appears on the scene to serve as a psychiatric representative to Van Helsing. His brassy secretary Janet (Churchill) joins him, acting as both a secondary love interest and comic relief. Where would he be without her? She ties his ties! Men are so helpless, hapless, and over-employed. From her introduction, we glean that Janet isn’t just an ordinary secretary, she’s a fun secretary not meant to be played with. We learn she’s a Baron’s daughter which affords her the freedom to be outspoken even in her supposedly submissive role. The character is sort of saying: you can only be assertive if you come from money.
The Countess’s servant Sandor, her very own Renfield, goes out and hunts prey for her. He picks up a young woman and offers her modeling work for the evening, which she accepts with some hesitation in her innocent eyes. It was at this point in the movie that I perked up because I believed gay shit had to happen. Sandor takes Lili (Grey) back to the Countess’s very respectable and not at all haunted-looking flat in Chelsea (Please note: this is not a sarcastic sentence but rather a commentary on the dearth of horror in this horror picture). She invites Nan to strip so that the Countess can paint her. While Nan undresses, the Countess offers her wine and sandwiches. Okay, wine, yes, but I’ve never arrived to a hookup’s apartment and had him greet me with sandwiches while I strip down to whatever dumb pair of underwear I bought from Andrew Christian that week. More people who want to get in my pants should offer me sandwiches.
I know this scene has lesbian subtext because The Celluloid Closet and my gay elders told me so, but I don’t know if I would have fully gotten there on my own. It’s not just subtle, it’s kind of boring, which is really on-brand with the rest of the film. The Countess makes intense eye contact then tries to hypnotize Lily who becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the situation and asks to leave. The director does make a distinction with Lili. He wants it to be clear that she is not an evil lesbian like the Countess. Good for you, Lili. Countess Zaleska attacks Lili who luckily survives to eat sandwiches and drink wine another day. This sequence left me saying, “What? Was that it? Shouldn’t there be more?”
Eventually, the Countess accepts that she can never escape her vampire destiny, so she does what any rational person would do: she kidnaps the secretary of the man she wants to be with and heads on over to a castle in Transylvania. During the climax, her “faithful” servant shoots her with a bow and arrow in another truly boring segment in which I had to keep asking myself: “Is she dead or is she just napping?” I ask myself that same question twice a day.
A few days later, I met my aforementioned friend, Grace for drinks in the East Village. When I lamented about the lack of quality gay content in the film, they responded, “What did you expect?” I wanted there to be more, I think, because I recently saw how well The Children’s Hour skirted around the same topic and decency laws. But that’s when I knew I had to give DRACULA’S DAUGHTER another viewing. It may not be the greatest entry into queer or horror cinema, but it deserves some credit for dropping hints better than most of the men in my life.
At the time of this film’s release, the Hays Code had been active for two years. It purported to be “a code to maintain social and community values” using “responsible opinion” and noting the “importance of entertainment and its value on rebuilding the bodies and souls of human beings.” It almost sounds like Instagram’s “community guidelines,” flowery and slightly empowered language used to dismantle my own thought processes and control what media I am permitted to see. Eat your heart out, Mr. Orwell!
Final Thoughts: The Universal Monster movies are legend, but they have flaws. The costuming is typically terrific and there are some still-cool special effects at play. However, the action is often stationary which makes me a bit antsy when I watch them. But with DRACULA’S DAUGHTER it feels lazy even for the lower standards I had going in. Maybe it was the rush to come out with a sequel to Dracula, maybe it was because they didn’t care to put effort into a film with a female lead/villain. I don’t know. And the tagline for this movie, “She gives you that weird feeling,” fooled me into thinking we’d be getting a lot more. But hey, this is still a movie with a spooky female lead. Did Cassandra Peterson watch this movie and leave inspired? I may not love it, but if this movie inspires any spooky girls who like other spooky girls, then it will have been worth it.