In 1936, Universal Pictureswhich had begun its horror cycle with Tod Browning's Dracula (the one with Bela Lugosi) in 1931made a true sequel to its first vampire film. This was supposedly based on Bram Stoker's short story, "Dracula's Guest."1
Dracula's Daughter is a decently atmospheric movie (in parts) and generally well-actedGloria Holden as the Countess Marya Zaleska (the titular daughter) stands out in a cast of little-knowns (with the exception of a brief performance by Hedda Hopper). The director, Lambert Hillyer, made his career almost exclusively making B-westerns (judging by his filmography). It's not great, but it's kinda fun. Of course, that's not why the film usually gets mentioned.
It probably is better known (among those that pay attention to such things) for the "lesbian subtext." Might as well get that out of the way now. Note: this is 1936 and Universal, not Hammer in the early seventies (or something later and more explicit). Also, it's noticeable mainly if you're looking for it and irrelevant to the plot. But when the film is discussed, this'll come up. Just so you know.
It opens with constables walking down the cob-webbed, stonecut steps of the abbey where Dracula met his demise in the first film. A man is found at the bottom of the stairs with his neck broken (Renfield: a "poor, harmless imbecile who ate spiders and flies"). In the other room, they discover the staked body of the Count. Doctor Van Helsing is there, too, of course. And he's asked about the "murder." "Are you responsible?" "Yes, I did it." But the victim has been dead for five hundred yearsnot that anyone believes him.
Arrested for the death, his case is turned over to Sir Basil Humphrey.2 He's sympathetic with the doctor but there seems to have been a crime and he must prosecute (it later gets held up because of a missing corpse). And who would believe him? Van Helsing says that is precisely wherein lies a vampire's "strength," "that he is unbelievable."
Since these are the days before everyone knew what a vampire was (apparently), Van Helsing gives his explanation of the "undead." They are:
creatures who have never died. Who prolong their unnatural lives by draining the blood of the living. At night, they leave their graves and roam abroad like wolves seeking their prey. When daylight comes, they must return to their graves or die.
Which seems to cover it.3 Since he needs someone as counsel, Van Helsing chooses his friend and psychiatrist Jeffrey Garth. Being that Hollywood loved using "psychology" to give a scientific basis for stuff,4 it's unsurprising that he is offered to be able to make people believe Van Helsing's story. Sort of odd, since he doesn't believe in vampires (or as he later says to the Countess "I don't believe in your spells and magic").
Garth feels it's some sort of mental defect or obsession. You see, "sympathetic treatment can release the human mind from any obsession." Of course we know better and the Countess paraphrases the Bard by suggesting that "possibly there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your psychiatry."4 But back to the story.
Since there is no one to claim the body, it gets left at the station (with two constables providing the expected comic relief)at least until a beautiful and mysterious woman, dressed in black, shows up. She wishes to see the body, to make sure he's dead. Apprehensive around her, the guard refuses. She offers money or "something more precious than money." Then proceeds to hypnotize the guard with a large ring.6 The next morning the guard is found, apparently "knocked out" and the body is missing.
We find that she is intent on destroying the body, burning it on a pyre while reciting the suitable sort of incantation:
be thou art exorcisedoh Draculaand thy body, long undead, find destruction throughout eternity in the name of thy dark, unholy master.
She now feels free, "free to live my life as a woman. Free to take my place in the bright world of the living instead of among the shadows of the dead."7 She believes that with the body in ashes, she will no longer be cursed.
Sandor, her faithful servant thinks otherwise. He knows her true nature and how she cannot break away from her condition so easilyhe knows how she gets at night. Her vampirism weighs heavily on her and compels her to do things she wishes not to think about. The "spell" isn't broken, she won't be able to "think normal things, even play normal music again." She asks him to look into her eyes and say what he sees.
Of course, he doesn't really want her to be cured or "released"(as we find out later) she has promised him the gift of eternal life. If she is no longer a vampire, she can no longer give him that gift.8 But she's not cured. She cannot control the urge and she succumbs that night, returning just before daybreak. Handing her cape to Sandor, she notes that it has "blood on it again."
The victim is found, mysteriously drained of blood. "If only we knew what caused those two sharp punctures over the jugular vein." They never seem to know, do they?
Garth feels that he can't help Van Helsing, given that he rejects the notion of vampires. But, as a friend and former student, he promises to do whatever he can. At a party he attends with his girlfriend Janet, he finally meets the Countess, who is introduced as a painter. When offered sherry, declines saying, "I never drink wine." 9
Later she asks for his help, not giving too much away, but asking if he believes that the dead can have influence over the living, and tells him how she believes there is "someone, something that reaches out from the grave and fills me with horrible impulses." He, of course, prescribes treatment as is done with alcoholics (or how he treats alcoholics), saying she must "meet it, fight it," confront her "impulses." Of course, he's wrong. She asks to meet again but can only do it at night.
Telling Sandor that she needs a model to paint, she finds a girl about to commit suicide (jump off a bridge). Offering food and warmth and money, she entices the girl to her studio. For those that have been waiting, this is the bulk of the "questionable" material. Since she is "doing a study of a young girl's head and shoulders," she asks if the girl would mind taking off her blouse. Of course it isn't (she is a painter, right?). The girl offers to drop the straps on her undergarment.
The Countess then gives her some wine and tells her to stand by the fireplaceso she won't catch cold. Then the girl, suspicious, asks her why she's looking at her like that, "won't I do?" "Yes, you'll do very well indeed." She then does the ring trick. Before she is hypnotized, the girl decides she doesn't want to pose and asks to go. The Countess advances. She screams. That's it. It may look sexual,10 but she is a vampire trying to get access to a neck to feed (without which she would die). You make the call.
The victim is found (though not quite deadshe's lost blood and has "apparent amnesia"), with those mysterious marks no one can ever identify. They think she has some sort of "post-hypnosis" and she's spoken something about a "woman." Garth begins to suspect it could be something Van Helsing has knowledge about. Another man is found in a similar condition (though dead). After a conversation with the doctor, Garth begins to believe the vampire theory.
She comes to visit Garth, meeting Janet who feels threatened by the Countess (she lies about him being home). It becomes clear that help with her "problem" is not all she is interested in. She is leaving England, now that she realizes that she cannot control her cravings. She tells him that she put herself to a test and failed. He asks what she's trying to say but she refuses, saying "it's too ghastly." Garth makes to hypnotize her (whether the hypnosis11 scares her or the mirrors, is unclear), but she won't let him.
The Countess asks him to go away with her. He will not. A phone call interrupts, calling him to a patient. He leaves, telling her to stay and think about how she's going to tell him the "truth" (despite his suspicions, he is still treating her like a client). She already has a plan for making him come with her. Janet returns and the plan is put into action. Sandor arrives and they spirit her away.
The patient is the "model," who is hypnotized and tells enough information for Garth to be sure it was the Countess and where to find the studio. He returns home to find the Countess gone and rushes out to find the place, calling Basil to come to the address and bring Van Helsing with him. She is waiting there for him, when told about the girl, she says "what a pity, she seemed so healthy." There, in the studio, she reveals her identity as...Dracula's Daughter. The Countess wants him to leave with her but he still refuses. So she asks Garth to call and see if he can find where Janet is. She (obviously) is missing. When he turns to confront the Countess, she's left.
A dragnet is thrown up but she has already left the country. And so has Garth. Destination: Transylvania. And having the money for such things in the police budget, Basil and Van Helsing rush off, too.
We are treated to a stereotypical Germanic wedding, everyone dressed like rejects from Oktoberfest12 and a castle that is clearly a painting. Everyone runs in fear because "Dracula, he's come back!"
Meanwhile, the Countess explains why she has not harmed Janet and what her plan is (Sandor is curious). It was the only way to make sure Garth would come. This way, he will give up his "life" for his love and be rewarded with "life, eternal life, with me." Sandor is upset.13 She sends him away.
Garth arrives and is greeted by Sandor shooting an arrow at him. He runs inside. At the same time, the Countess is hovering over Janet in what almost looks like the prelude to a kiss. Or not. She no longer needs her alive and she is a vampire. For those keeping score, that's the only other "clue" to the claimed subtext. The bite/kiss/thing is interrupted when Garth takes a shot at Sandor.
They meet. It's explained that he must acquiesce to her wishes or Janet will never come out of the coma-like state she's in"a spell that can only be broken by me or death." Faced with the loss of the one he loves14, Garth has no choice but to promise to remain there with the Countess. He now demands she be released and the Countess begins to do the ring trick again (probably never intending to let Janet go). Just then, Sandor shoots her through the heart with an arrow (yes, that's why he's using a bow and arrow).
The Countess dies, releasing Janet from the "spell" and Basil and Van Helsing arrive just in time to kill Sandor before he can shoot an arrow at Garth.
Thus reaching the obligatory "happy ending."15
1A glance at the story, without fully reading it, shows it really has little to do with the movie, other than Dracula (who does not take part in the action) and an apparent vampire countess, briefly glimpsed in a thunderstorm. The short story was a part of the original novel but excised due to the length of the manuscript. It was published after Stoker died.
2Who later utters my favorite line in the film: "what new piece of asininity is this"sheer poetry.
3It seems unlikely that there were many in the audience who didn't know the basics of Hollywood vampirism by 1936 (as opposed to the actual folkloric originsrefer to my write-up under vampire, for a discussion).
4Hamlet, Act I Scene v.
5Sigmund Freud's ideasno matter how incorrect, outdated, or misappliedran rampant in Hollywood for decades. Much of its use in film is somewhat embarrassing and silly when viewed today.
6It's never clear just what she's offering. It might be eternal life, though she's reluctant to impart that. One might surmise that the "something" is unconsciousness. Probably she was just lying.
7She is woman, hear her roar.
8Also, it is the need for the vampire to have a mortal servant for aid and protection that creates the bond between the twoand will be broken if she is "cured." To him, a bond that feels like love. His obvious jealousy when she turns her attention to Garth, promising to give him eternal life and the lengths Sandor goes to in order to stop it are too strong to be merely anger at losing his opportunity to live forever. He wants to with her.
9Lugosi says the exact same line in Dracula, except with a better pause before "wine."
10The character of the vampire is useful to explore themes. One of the most common (and commonly exploited, in both senses of the term) is "sexuality." The only other theme that comes close is "addiction." All very interesting but too much to go into here.
11Hollywood has an even worse record when it comes to hypnosis than it does with psychology.
12In the movies, they never seem to agree whether the people around Dracula-Central are basically German or Slavic. This version opts for the former.
13You may wish to recall footnote 8. Or not.
14For someone he is willing to give up everything for, he doesn't spend much time showing it during the rest of the movie.
15This is the final footnote. Promise.