Welcome to Silver Screams! Every month, I’ll guide you through a deep dive into a classic horror film or hidden gem and reveal its history and juicy behind the scenes secrets, as well as its legacy and influence on modern horror.
This January at Nightmare on Film Street we’re marking a brand new year with The Return Month. In the spirit of celebrating all things reboot, remake, revamp, and resurrections, let’s take a look at a more obscure early Universal Monsters sequel. In the realm of horror sequels, Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is considered a classic that surpasses its predecessor in influence and reputation. Considering the staggering reputation of Bride, it’s no wonder that Universal’s subsequent sequel to Dracula (1931) is frequently overlooked.
Dracula’s Daughter (1936) wasn’t given the same budget or reception, and Dracula himself (Bella Lugosi) never even appears. It’s true that Universal’s Dracula sequel never reached the heights of artistic expansion or quality of Bride of Frankenstein, yet it is a film that remains worthy of recognition and revisiting. Dracula’s Daughter is so profoundly different from its predecessor that it manages to often be a more fresh and entertaining watch. It’s a film with a fascinating history, a story packed with boundary-pushing subtext, and a little known innovator in future staples of vampire mythology.
The New Age of Monsters
The origin of Dracula’s Daughter began with a bit of Hollywood infighting, as studios jockeyed to get in on the burgeoning financial promise of the horror genre. In 1931, Universal released the first sound horror film, Dracula. The movie’s massive box office success quite literally saved the studio from bankruptcy. And while Universal had produced horror films in the silent era— such as The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and The Cat and the Canary (1927) — it was the success of Dracula that cemented the studio as the house that horror built.
The box office has never failed to draw attention in Hollywood, especially from rival studios looking for guaranteed returns during the Great Depression. MGM began a bid to get in on the scream game in 1932 with Freaks, directed by Dracula’s Tod Browning. The film was denounced by critics and audiences for its violence and perceived depravity, though it’s gained critical praise and a cult following today. With Freaks and MGM’s other horror release, The Mask of Fu-Manchu (1932), the studio was differentiating itself as a more overtly violent and purposely controversial alternative to Universal’s more subdued, gothic films. Their approach drew the talents of John L. Balderston, the screenwriter and playwright who helped adapt Dracula into the stage show on which Universal based its film. He worked on script treatments for Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and The Mummy, though his versions never made it to the screen unaltered. Balderston was frustrated that Universal seemed to tone down his fondness for truly shocking horror. He saw MGM as more in line with his tastes.
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“Dracula’s Daughter is so profoundly different from its predecessor that it manages to often be a more fresh and entertaining watch.“
Meanwhile, MGM’s David O Selznick acquired the rights to the only Dracula property not owned by Universal. In 1914, Bram Stoker’s widow released a chapter that her late husband had cut from Dracula as a short story titled Dracula’s Guest. Selznick purchased the rights from Florence Stoker for $500 and tapped Balderston to adapt it into a film. Balderston envisioned a shocking, BDSM-inspired sequel to Dracula featuring a female vampire who tortures her male victims, specifying in a 1934 memo to Selznick “that these men under her spell rather like it.” The short story featured none of Balderston’s ideas, and it was unlikely such a premise would have made it on screen after 1934.
By that time, the Hayes code was beginning to be enforced, essentially ending the anything-goes pre-code era. Perhaps Selznick saw the censorship writing on the wall. Or maybe he figured Universal would litigate any attempt by another studio to make a movie within the Dracula universe. Either way, Selznick eventually sold the rights to Dracula’s Guest to Universal, giving them the green light to produce an in-house sequel to Dracula.
A Rocky Road to Resurrection
Carl Laemmle Jr. immediately tapped Bride of Frankenstein director James Whale to helm the picture, no doubt envisioning him as Universal’s go-to for directing sequels to their major hits. But Whale was determined to take a hiatus from horror to avoid being pigeonholed into the genre. Ever the joker, Whale wiggled his way out of the contract by encouraging his new scriptwriter and previous The Invisible Man collaborator R.C. Sheriff to further push the censors. Together, they included enough homoerotic themes to all but guarantee their script would be rejected. The plan worked, and Whale was out. After another failed attempt to launch the project with director Edward Sutherland, Universal finally settled on Lambert Hillyer. Hillyer was a studio stalwart with over forty films under his belt by 1935. Though mostly westerns, he did direct one forgotten horror film for Universal, The Invisible Ray (1936) starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, earlier that same year. Garret Fort, who also worked on the original Dracula and Frankenstein scripts, finally cemented the screenplay. After a tumultuous journey through development hell, Dracula’s Daughter was finally ready to film.
Unlike Bride of Frankenstein, which gave Boris Karloff the chance to further flex his acting skills with a more nuanced version of his iconic monster, Dracula’s Daughter would not feature Bela Lugosi at all. Much can be said of the fact that Universal never gave Lugosi the same opportunities to escape typecasting and showcase his talents as they did Karloff. The fact that they opted to completely sidestep his inclusion in the sequel, cutting flashbacks and paying him only to use his likeness as a wax corpse, proves as much. But a positive side effect of that slight was that Dracula’s Daughter treads some new and unexpected ground in the vampire world, rather than simply retreading the mythology of Count Dracula.
“Dracula’s Daughter introduced the sympathetic, reluctant vampire.“
Dracula’s Daughter picks up immediately after the end of the first film, with a pair of policemen discovering Renfield’s body at the foot of the stairs of Carfax Abbey, just as Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) emerges from the crypt, having staked Dracula through the heart. Van Sloan is the only returning cast member from the original film, though for some indiscernible reason the script changes his name to Von Helsing. It’s easy enough to ignore in dialogue, and it’s so baffling we’re just going to pretend it didn’t happen.
Anyway, Van Helsing is immediately arrested for murder since he freely admits that he stabbed Dracula through the heart, and Scotland Yard has a hard time buying the “he was a vampire” defense. There’s no word on where the other characters who survived the first film have gone. But it’s not hard to believe that they skipped town and were happy to not get involved in the vampire business again, leaving poor Van Helsing out to dry. Instead of hiring a lawyer, the determined vampire hunter calls upon his former student, psychiatrist Dr. Jeffery Garth (Otto Krueger). Van Helsing figures that Garth will believe him and that the younger Doctor’s reputation will legitimize his case. Meanwhile, Dracula’s corpse is stolen by Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden), an unhappy vampire created by Dracula who is hoping to free herself of her bloodthirsty curse. She blesses and cremates Dracula’s body, believing the ritual will make her mortal. But it doesn’t work, and she eventually begins to seek out a psychological cure from Garth as she continues to feed on her victims by night.
A New Breed of the Undead
British actress Gloria Holden would assume the part of Countess Zaleska for her first leading role. Holden was no fan of horror and dreaded the job, fearing it would halt her career. Despite her reservations, she manages to deliver a memorable performance that brought a new breed of vampire to the screen. As a work of gothic horror, Dracula’s Daughter pales in comparison to Tod Browning’s atmospheric original. Yet its story and characters are better developed, and its unique take on vampires ended up establishing key ideas that define the genre to this day.
Dracula’s Daughter introduced the sympathetic, reluctant vampire. Prior to the 1935 film, vampires like Dracula and Nosferatu’s Count Orlock were happy to continue their immortal existence preying on humans. Even the suave Count Dracula was more monster than man, motivated by nothing more than a thirst for blood. Yet Zaleska is sad, envious of the living, and wishes she could be free of her vampirism. She’s a clear precursor for the tragic, Byronic vampires of Anne Rice’s novels. Rice even names a bar in Queen of the Damned “Dracula’s Daughter” in honor of the film’s influence on her work.
Zaleska is also the first vampire in fiction to have a mortal minion who serves her, in hopes of being turned into a vampire himself. Unlike Renfield (Dwight Fry), the insane and reluctant servant in the prior film, Zaleska’s manservant Sandor (Irving Pichel) is her vampiric enabler, dissuading her from her quest to become human in service of his quest to become immortal. In one memorable scene, Zaleska realizes her ritual over Dracula’s corpse failed after Sandor guides her away from the childhood memories of a mortal with a little vampiric word association, reigniting her bloodlust. His is a role that’s become so iconic in vampire stories, it was even memorably parodied in the horror-comedy What We Do in The Shadows (2014).
“Dracula’s Daughter treads some new and unexpected ground in the vampire world, rather than simply retreading the mythology of Count Dracula.“
Dracula’s Daughter is perhaps most famous today for being the first vampire film with a clear lesbian subtext. In fact, to call it subtext is a stretch, as it was noticeable enough to be highlighted in the film’s marketing, with tag lines like “Save the women of London from Dracula’s Daughter!” The scene where Zaleska attempts to test her resolve by inviting a young woman named Lili (Nan Gray) to pose for a painting at her studio is an iconic sequence of barely veiled lesbian seduction. The Production Code insisted that the script later clarify that Zaleska only bites the girl. The change didn’t do much for the subtext, as the vampire bite had already been recognized as a metaphor for sex during the filming of the first Dracula. The erotic implications were the basis for the famous censor objections to Dracula biting Renfield in the ‘31 film with the memo “Dracula only bites women!”
In a later scene, Zaleska hovers over an unconscious female captive with a profound longing and hunger. The Countess also feeds on a nameless man and longs to make Dr. Garth her new vampire companion, so more accurately one could call Dracula’s Daughter the first bisexual vampire film. The film has become iconic among queer horror fans, despite the negative light in which Zaleska’s desires are depicted. Still, the countess is one of the most glamorous and fashionable vampires of all time, serving incredible Art Deco goth look after look while living as an artist and socialite in London. We’ll take that as a small win for queer vampire representation. Anne Rice has also credited Dracula’s Daughter with influencing her queer vampires, and we can see the film’s DNA in later queer vampire features like The Vampire Lovers (1970) and The Hunger (1983).
The Eternal Return
Dracula’s Daughter was a moderate hit for Universal with audiences and critics. While not as successful or celebrated as Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula’s Daughter is a worthy sequel that dares to do something entirely different from its predecessor. Beyond its fascinating protagonist, it boasts a fun script with livelier supporting characters than many of the Universal horror films that came before. Marguerite Churchill is particularly lovely as Janet Blake, Dr. Garth’s secretary and love interest. She’s the type of quick-witted, spunky heroines frequently seen in pre-code cinema but rarely in Universal Horror. Overall, the film feels more intimate and character-driven, though an eventual return to Dracula’s Castle in Transylvania is a lovely call back to the original film’s grand aesthetic.
Dracula’s Daughter is rarely recognized today for its contributions to the vampire genre, but it deserves to be reappraised. It’s poignant and intriguing, with a fascinating subtext and an indispensable legacy. Dracula may not appear in his own sequel, but Dracula’s Daughter brought vampires into a new direction for a new generation. Ironically, even as Countess Zaleska did everything she could to escape her undying fate, her groundbreaking characterization all but ensured the vampire their cinematic immortality.
Until next month, classy fiends, enjoy those Silver Screams. Share your thoughts on Dracula’s Daughter with the Nightmare on Film Street community on Twitter, in our Official Subreddit, or in the Fiend Club Facebook Group! Or, while you’re here – check out previous editions of Silver Screams for your classic horror fix!