Horror Is Universal: “Dracula’s Daughter” (1936)

Again with the vampires! Since the sequel to Frankenstein turned out so well, it was only natural for Universal to also make a follow-up to their other monster hit from 1931. You may notice a similarity to Bride right off the bat — namely, the premise of a female counterpart to the original film’s antagonist. That, however, is about as deep as the parallels go, because Dracula’s Daughter is a very different kind of continuation.

I wasn’t sure what to expect coming into this film. With our first four members of the Canonical Six now firmly established, we’re stepping into a long period of sequels, only a few of which are still well-known today. And of course, I was concerned by the possibility that I would already have another Werewolf of London on my hands. Maybe that’s one reason why I found this movie to be such a pleasant surprise.

Saying this is better than Werewolf of London might sound like damning it by faint praise, but no: this is genuinely good, especially for a sequel to one of the most iconic horror films of all time. Is it on the same level as Dracula? No, of course not. But I think it’s a movie that knows its limitations and is smart about working within them. Rather than try in vain to recapture the eerie power of the original film, it chooses to tell a different kind of story with a different tone. The result is a sequel that, while less memorable than its predecessor, is still competent and entertaining in its own right.

The Plot: Immediately following the final scene of Dracula, the bodies of both Renfield and Count Dracula are discovered in Carfax Abbey, along with Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), who has stuck around to make sure the vampire is 100% dead. Unsurprisingly, he is arrested and scheduled to stand trial for killing the count. “I had to nail a stake through his heart because he was a literal bloodsucking demon” isn’t the kind of argument that will get you acquitted of murder — sans an insanity plea, anyway — but Van Helsing is convinced that he can make his case. To do so, he needs help from one of his old psychiatry students, Dr. Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger). Garth, however, also thinks his old teacher has gone mad. As this whole affair unfolds, a mysterious and glamorous woman suddenly arrives in London. She is Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden), and she is seeking psychological help from Dr. Garth, although she refuses to disclose the full nature of whatever mental illness she possesses. Garth, while remaining professional, is nevertheless fascinated by Zaleska, much to the annoyance of his mischievous secretary Janet Blake (Marguerite Churchill). But then corpses start to appear all over London, bearing the same neck wounds as those seen on Dracula’s victims. Is the count somehow still alive? Or maybe, as Van Helsing suggests, is one of his previously turned victims following in his footsteps? The fate of the city — and the fate of Dr. Garth and Janet — rest on whether or not Zaleska can escape the evil influence plaguing her from beyond the grave. But even if she can break the curse of her undead father, does she really want to?

Given that this film was released so soon after Bride of Frankenstein and also features a new female monster, you might think that the Bride was the direct inspiration for Zaleska. But that’s not actually the origin of the character. The film is loosely based on “Dracula’s Guest,” a short story by Bram Stoker. In it, an unnamed Englishman discovers the tomb of a beautiful vampire woman in a Munich graveyard. Published posthumously in 1914, it’s widely believed to have been the original first chapter of Dracula the novel, cut from Stoker’s manuscript for pacing issues. The film rights to the story were sold to David O. Selznick of MGM Studios in 1933, and that’s where our behind-the-scenes story really begins.

Much to my surprise, a few minutes of Internet research unearthed a surplus of background information about this movie. To give you a shortened version, Universal bought the film rights from MGM for $12,500, more than double the price of what Selznick had paid in the first place. Along with that came the rights to the first pass at the screenplay, written by our old friend John L. Balderston. The final script was written by Garrett Fort, who had worked on both Dracula and Frankenstein and would go on to write The Mark of Zorro. As for directing duties, studio head Carl Laemmle Jr. wanted to get James Whale back. Whale, however, wanted to direct the musical adaptation Show Boat instead. The director ended up being Lambert Hillyer: you probably haven’t heard of him, but he had a pretty impressive career and a long filmography. In 1936 he also directed The Invisible Ray for Universal, and in 1943, he directed the first film depiction of Batman. How’s that for some trivia? Universal also tried rounding up some of their regular horror actors to star in the project, but the only familiar face that appears here is Edward Van Sloan. Unless, of course, you count the wax dummy that vaguely resembles Bela Lugosi if you squint hard enough.

Dracula’s Daughter, like its own conception and production, gets off to a clunky start. With only a tenuous narrative connection to the first film despite picking up right where it left off, it’s not clear what kind of story this is going to be. The first characters we see are a pair of comic relief constables, a fact which certainly didn’t lift my spirits while watching the film. The stuff with Van Helsing makes for an interesting setup: with the way Edward Van Sloan plays him, you get the feeling that he knew or at least suspected what he would be in for if he killed Dracula but is willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good. Unfortunately, his predicament doesn’t get the attention it deserves and is mainly used as a way to bring the new protagonists into the story. After about ten minutes, you might start to fear that you’ve signed up for another slog of a film.

But then Countess Zaleska makes her entrance, wearing a slinky velvet robe that makes her look like a sexy version of Death in The Seventh Seal, and the rules of the game abruptly change.

She may not meet or exceed the power of Lugosi’s Dracula, but a big reason Dracula’s Daughter is such an entertaining movie is, well, Dracula’s daughter. We never find out if she’s supposed to be his biological daughter or one of his victims who got turned into a vampire, although clues in the dialogue lean toward the latter. The distinction doesn’t matter to Zaleska, who is afflicted with “the curse of the Draculas” either way. That’s the key difference between these two characters: while Dracula seemed at least content if not outright happy with his vampirism, Zaleska will stop at nothing to find a cure for hers. But as in all stories like this, curing yourself of monstrosity is never as simple as deciding not to be one. The end result is that Zaleska becomes a tragic heroine, a monster who is firmly in denial about being a monster. She insists that she can live a normal life and have normal human interactions with people, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. She buries herself in artistic pursuits like painting and piano playing, but no matter what she tries, she can’t resist the pull of bloodlust and the macabre. Once she’s given in and sated her thirst, she sinks right back into self-loathing and the cycle begins anew. The acute despair of the character is definitely enhanced by Gloria Holden’s performance. This was Holden’s first major film role — not that she was happy about it. Apparently she didn’t think much of horror films, and she feared being typecast the way Bela Lugosi had since Dracula. The end result is that Zaleska’s hatred for her situation isn’t entirely fictional, and that makes it more powerful.

Zaleska’s problems certainly aren’t made any better by the relationship she has with her own “Renfield.” The role of the vampire’s human servant is here filled by the character of Sandor, played by actor/director Irving Pichel. Sandor is a hulking man of few words, mostly acting as the brawn to Zaleska’s brains. But there’s more to him than meets the eye: this is one of the very few vampire/servant relationships in media where the servant wields power over the master. Throughout the film, Sandor is manipulating Zaleska in an effort to make her embrace her vampirism (and, more importantly, share it with him). He does this by bringing her victims to snack on, but also by verbally dismantling her confidence in any progress she’s made toward her goal. We see this in action a few times, but the most blatant instance happens early in the film, just after Zaleska has stolen and burnt Dracula’s corpse. Thinking she’s now finally free from her vampirism, she settles down in her London flat and tries to play piano.

Zaleska: You think this night will be like all the others, don’t you? Well, you’re wrong. Dracula’s destroyed. His body is in ashes. The spell is broken, I can live a normal life now, think normal things. Even play normal music again. Listen. (starts playing) A cradle song. A song my mother once sang to me long ago, rocking me to sleep as she sang in the twilight.

Sandor: Twilight…

Z: Quiet, quiet. You disturb me. Twilight…long shadows on the hillsides.

S: Evil shadows.

Z: No, peaceful shadows. The flutter of wings in the treetops.

S: The wings of bats.

Z: No, the wings of birds. From far off, the barking of a dog.

S: Because there are wolves about.

Z: Silence! I forbid you!

S: Forbid? Why are you afraid?

Z: I’m not. I’m not! I’ve found release!

S: That music doesn’t speak of release.

Z: No…no! You’re right!

S: That music tells of the dark, evil things, shadowy places.

Z: Stop! STOP!

With scenes like this, it sometimes feels less like Zaleska is trying to resist the urge to drink human blood and more like she just really, really doesn’t want to be goth. But I think the movie does a fine job of portraying the vicious cycle she finds herself in. With each kill, she sinks further into misery and becomes more desperate — first for a cure, but then for anything that might make her happy.

Something that I love about this movie is how its two plotlines are essentially two different films that gradually, seamlessly merge into one. This is more impressive when you consider that the two main plotlines are quite distinct from each other in how they look and feel. First there is Zaleska’s story, which has a moody and dreamlike quality to both its dialogue and its visuals. There’s the characters’ flowery way of talking, but also how a lot of those scenes take place at night, on foggy London streets or in deep woods. The scene where Zaleska disposes of Dracula’s corpse with pomp and circumstance is the epitome of this ethereal, stylish approach. Said approach even extends to the way Zaleska attacks her victims. In Dracula, we would see Drac looming over someone before the camera cut away. Zaleska’s attacks, in contrast, have an agonizing slowness to them. She uses a ring to put her victims into a trance, and we usually get a closeup of the ring before a slow fade into the next scene. It’s effective and creepy.

The other big plotline of the film, and the one that surprised me with how good it actually is, is about Dr. Garth and Janet trying to help Van Helsing. I need to talk about the Garth/Janet relationship for a minute, because it defies expectations and first impressions to become one of the best things about the movie. At the start of the film, I definitely wasn’t sold on Garth as a character. He’s quite rude to Janet, not only to her face but also behind her back. When she drives out to the countryside to haul him back to London for work-related purposes, he makes a quip about wanting to shoot her with a hunting rifle. Not too endearing.

But the way the script improves on this setup is that Janet gives just as good as she gets, if not more so. She doesn’t put up with any nonsense from Garth, nor is she afraid to make a fool out of him. For example, there’s a great scene where she prank calls him during a meeting. Then the phone rings again, and Garth, thinking it’s still Janet, accidentally gives the tongue-lashing intended for her to his boss. The look on his face when he realizes what he’s done is priceless. In return, he makes sure that Janet is up all night answering work calls. Later on, Garth has no idea how to tie a bowtie, so Janet ties it for him and makes it crooked. They’re continually taking verbal shots at each other, but the enthusiasm they both show for it softens the uncomfortable aspect and makes it feel more like Beatrice and Benedick trading barbs in Much Ado About Nothing. They might not be especially good people, but they understand each other in a way their other peers don’t. They need each other, in a weird way.

The two plotlines intersect when Zaleska contacts Garth seeking his professional assistance. After listening to a talk he gives at a party, she starts to wonder if there might be a psychological component to her vampirism. What if her own fear and not Dracula’s curse is what’s keeping her trapped? She wants Garth to help her work through her mental illness. I really enjoy this idea and the movie’s take on it. It continues the blending of science and the supernatural that we’ve seen a lot of in Universal Horror so far. Similar to Werewolf of London (but better), it also focuses on how the science gives power to the myth: while we know that vampirism is real, the line between obsession and evil influence is definitely blurred in regards to Zaleska. Treatments that might help her are stalled due to her own inaction, and her belief that she is eternally cursed seems to hold just as much power as the curse itself. Her mind might not necessarily make it real, but her mind does make it worse.

This all culminates in what is probably the most famous scene in the film. Zaleska, acting on Garth’s advice that she should try to resist the temptations of her obsessions, commands Sandor to find her a model she can use for painting. Sandor procures a young woman named Lili, and while Zaleska holds out as long as she can, the temptation proves too much to resist. Chomp!

I’m not gonna beat around the bush, the main reason people have remembered and analyzed this scene is because it’s sexy and also a little bit gay. Like Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula’s Daughter is a film that’s been the subject of some LGBT-focused analysis over the years. It’s less surprising that this movie would get that treatment, seeing how the lesbian vampire archetype has been a pretty established thing for a while. A lot of modern vampire fiction gives a sexual subtext to the act of a vampire feeding on a human. So when you’ve got a female vampire preying on women, a queer interpretation of the character is almost inevitable regardless of the author’s intent. In the case of Dracula’s Daughter, I don’t think it was completely unintentional. Universal definitely tried to play up the lesbian subtext in its advertising campaign for the film, which included taglines like “Save the women of London from Dracula’s Daughter!” and “She gives you that weird feeling!” Then there’s the scene between Zaleska and Lili, which was singled out during production as something that would have to be carefully filmed to avoid any “questionable flavor.” In his book The Horror Film: An Introduction, author Rick Worland included the notes that Joseph Breen, head of the Production Code Administration, had about this scene the day before it was shot:

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.

“That weird feeling” pictured here. From left to right: Nan Grey (Lili) and Gloria Holden.

Other readings of the film have pointed out that Zaleska’s decision to seek psychiatric help for her vampirism parallels the then-prevailing belief that homosexuality was a treatable mental illness. It’s an implication that 1930s audiences would have recognized, and many of them did if we look at film reviews from the time. The New York World-Telegram, for example, noted Zaleska’s affinity for “giving the sweet eye to young girls.” It’s one thing if the queer readings of the text come long after it’s made, but this is a situation where both the studio and the audience are picking up on the subtext (and in the case of the former, actually exploiting it).

The film does undercut the queer implications a bit in the third act, perhaps intentionally, by making Dr. Garth our Mina equivalent. After the Lili incident, Zaleska comes to the conclusion that A) there’s no way for her to be cured and B) she’s in love with Garth. Her plan going forward is to lure Garth back to Transylvania by kidnapping Janet, then forcing Garth to stay and become her vampire lover in exchange for Janet’s life. I’ll admit that one of the weaker parts of the film is this character shift. I suppose it doesn’t come completely out of nowhere, but the script doesn’t linger on Zaleska’s decision as long as it probably should have. It feels more like a way to kickstart the climax of the film and to redirect Zaleska’s romantic/sexual feelings to a more appropriate target.

The abduction of Janet is an adrenaline shot for the script, turning it from a moody mystery into a dramatic, humorous and thrilling rescue mission. I’ve only hinted at this up until now, but there is some genuinely good comedy in this film. A lot of it comes from the Garth/Janet interactions, but also from the character of Sir Basil Humphrey, head of Scotland Yard. Sir Humphrey is the resident skeptic of the film, gradually losing his patience as everyone around him becomes embroiled in the vampire hunt. The story pairs him with Van Helsing most of the time, which makes for an amusing duo. There’s also a scene where Garth calls him late at night while searching for Zaleska and Janet. When Sir Humphrey demands to know what Garth is up to, the normally straight-laced Garth announces that he’s hunting for a vampire. Sir Humphrey’s response:

“Vampires, oh my…are you drunk?”

There’s just something so incredibly funny about the delivery of that line, I can’t explain it. The character’s posh, stubborn obliviousness throughout the film makes him a great and effective source of comic relief.

There’s a lot of other great stuff about this climax, too. Despite his faults, Garth truly cares about Janet: he commandeers a plane to Transylvania to chase after her (leaving Sir Humphrey and Van Helsing to frantically chase after him), and when Zaleska gives him her ultimatum, he’s willing to sacrifice his life and freedom so Janet can keep hers. The climax also features a return to Castle Dracula and some impressive recreations of the sets from the original film. I didn’t even realize they were recreations until I was doing my research afterwards.

But what I like most about the ending is how Zaleska is the cause of her own undoing, in a way. The way she uses and discards people comes back to haunt her when she decides to cast aside Sandor in favor of Garth. Sandor, in retaliation, kills her just as she’s about to turn Garth. It’s a suspenseful scene that ends on a moment of poetic justice, and there’s some great irony in how Zaleska finds the release she was seeking just as she decides to embrace her curse once and for all.

It would be the perfect ending…if not for one really stupid thing.

It’s a small thing, an almost unnoticeable thing. But when you think about it for more than a few seconds, it boggles your brain with how stupid it is. So, Sandor kills Zaleska. How does he kill her, you ask? He shoots her with an arrow. An ordinary wooden arrow. And it works because, as Van Helsing helpfully informs us, a wooden arrow is basically a really tiny stake.

Now, here is my question: if you can kill a vampire by just shooting them with a wooden arrow, how have they ever been a threat to anybody? Why on earth are people so afraid of them? You can poke them with a stick and they’re down for the count. They’re wimps. Even Dr. Glendon probably could have shrugged off a single wooden arrow. Do you realize how bad you have to be to make Dr. Glendon look more threatening than you?

And so we close on Van Helsing and Sir Humphrey standing over Zaleska’s body, as the former probably thinks “Wow, it’s that easy? Why the hell have we been hammering stakes into these things?” At least, that’s what I assume he was thinking.

As far as sequels go, Dracula’s Daughter is a surprisingly decent follow-up. It may lack the haunting atmosphere and iconic lead performances of the original Dracula, but it makes the wise choice of not trying to best such a staggering achievement. It seeks to be a moody and entertaining film, and it works incredibly well in that regard. The script is tight, balancing the melancholy of the title character with the witty banter of the heroes. The eerie world of Zaleska is artfully brought to life by Lambert Hillyer’s direction and Gloria Holden’s performance, which creates a sympathetic character distinct from the menacing Count Dracula. There are a few moments that make you stop and go “Wait, what?” but for the most part, both the laughs and the scares land just fine. It might not stick in your mind like Dracula does, but it’s an underrated film that’s definitely worthy of some 21st-century attention.

Final Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

This, unfortunately, is where the story of Universal Horror takes a bit of an unhappy turn. The stuff that went on at the studio shortly after the release of this film was neither simple nor pretty. I’ll give a full retelling of it all in our next article, but for now, it will suffice to say that Dracula’s Daughter was the end of what we’ll call the first phase of the Classic Era. Universal left behind its horror franchises and moved on to other pursuits. It was supposed to be the beginning of a new and very different chapter for the studio.

But if that was really the end of it, then we wouldn’t be here, would we?

UP NEXT: Son of Frankenstein (1939)

One thought on “Horror Is Universal: “Dracula’s Daughter” (1936)

  1. I finally saw it! One thing that stuck out for me was Garth’s lack of reaction when Zaleska is killled. He barely even moves! I am surprised the director did not have him express some kind of shock


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