It was four in the morning and the undead dead Count’s daughter was tired and confused. I had problems of my own and had been drinking vodka since midnight so I had some sympathy with the eponymous protagonist of Dracula’s Daughter. Indeed, this '30s low budget shocker from Universal with its hallucinatory visuals, sly wit, and Sapphic vampirism is an ideal companion for those of us who occasionally find ourselves with a heavy heart and a full tumbler.
The world is a terrible place. Sometimes the only way to make it through the night is to open up a second bottle and mumble obscenities at Bill O’Reilly. But that isn’t always enough; sporadically one longs for the solace which only black and white celluloid can provide. And from the very beginning it's obvious that Dracula’s daughter is going to do her best to soothe your troubled soul.
The film, a direct sequel to Tod Browning’s Dracula, opens in Whitby with two bobbies finding Dracula’s body with a stake through his heart and Von Helsing attempting to flee the scene. Having established the Count’s identity they ask Von Helsing how long Dracula has been dead. “About 500 years,” he replies. The sworn enemy of all vampires is then arrested on suspicion of murder and taken off to Scotland Yard.
Rather than getting himself a good lawyer, Von Helsing turns to one of his old students for help. Psychiatrist Jeffrey Garth, played by Otto Kruger, doesn’t believe in all this vampire nonsense but doubts his former teacher is a murderer so agrees to do what he can to prove the Professor's innocence. Mr Kruger, who often plays suave villains, perhaps most notably in the wonderful Murder, My Sweet, receives top billing and is ostensibly the lead, but the real star of this movie has stolen her father’s body from a police station and is ritualistically burning it on a foggy heath on the outskirts of Whitby.
Gloria Holden, in her first starring role, gives a performance of sustained high strangeness as the Countess Marya Zaleska, Dracula’s daughter. With her beautiful pale features, thrown into eerie relief by long, jet-black hair and undertaker make-up, and big, sorrowful eyes, which only blink in one scene, she’s the kind of vampire to whom one might willingly donate bodily fluids. But those eyes are sorrowful for a reason. The countess is sick of the vampire’s lot and hopes that burning Dracula’s body has freed her of her curse and now she can go and live a normal life in London. Sandor (Irving Pichel), her pasty-faced and malevolent assistant is not so sure…
In London Zaleska and Garth meet by chance at a party given by socialite Lady Esme Hammond. When her Ladyship asks the Countess if she would like a sherry, she replies, “No thank you, I never drink… wine.” Hammond is played by Hedda Hopper who would, of course, go on to be a celebrated and hugely powerful gossip columnist who saw reds everywhere and wouldn’t get on a plane until billionaire aviator Howard Hughes had inspected it. Back at the party the Countess begs Garth to help her overcome her “obsession”. Garth agrees but Von Helsing is immediately suspicious when after visiting Zaleska’s apartment Garth reports that it didn’t contain a single mirror.
It’s about this time that the bodies start turning up. The Countess, egged on by Sandor in a deliciously creepy performance by the future director, can no longer control her blood lust and begins to spend her evenings feasting on young women. One such is Lili. We first meet Lili, played with sweet vulnerability by Nan Grey, as she is about to end it all by jumping off a bridge. Sandor talks her out of it with an offer of work as a model for his mistress to paint. Back at the “studio” Lili is plied with drink by the Countess and told to take off her blouse. “Why do you look at me that way,” she asks the leering Zaleska, “won't I do?”
“Oh, yes, you’ll do,” replies Dracula’s daughter as she advances on the semi-clad girl. The scene has a dreamlike intensity and its sexual electricity is of such a voltage that the shock of it can still be felt across more than 70 years. And it would appear that Universal was well aware of the parallels its film was drawing between vampirism and lesbianism. One of the tag lines on posters for the film was “Save the women of London from Dracula’s daughter.”
By the way, Nan Grey, I am reliably informed by IMDb, later married Frankie Laine and lived happily ever after on Rawhide.
Eventually Garth and Von Helsing realise that the Countess is responsible for the plague of bloodless women sweeping the capital and chase her back to, where else, where better, Transylvania. I wont spoil the ending for those of you lucky enough not to have seen the film yet. But suffice to say that a pasty-faced cupid draws back his bow and a woman who looks extremely good for her age gets an arrow through her heart.
Apparently James Whale was originally supposed to direct Dracula’s Daughter and Bela Lugosi was penciled in to play the lead. It’s a tribute to director Lambert Hillyer, a man best known for B westerns, that as the credits roll you realise that even those two wouldn’t have come up with anything better than this haunting minor masterpiece. Whatever, it got me through the night and the next day I got up late and wished I went to the kind of parties where you bump into beautiful but troubled vampires.