For as long as I can remember, I have been obsessed with the original Universal Monster films. I ate them up like candy whenever they occasionally aired on TV when I was a kid and fully fell head over heels for them in the early ’90s when Universal finally began to reissue them all on home video. I had previously only owned Creature from the Black Lagoon, so being able to own virtually all of the core films after the reissues arrived was glorious.
While I skipped over monster-less titles like Tower of London and The Black Cat at the time, I managed to scoop up almost all of the monster films on VHS, with few exceptions. One of those exceptions happened to be Dracula’s Daughter. I’m not exactly sure why I never picked it up. Part of it may have been a lack of availability, as some films were harder to find than others. Another reason was probably a greater interest in other titles. After all, there were a lot of them and my allowance only went so far.
Whatever the reason, I didn’t finally come to the film until they were all put out on DVD about a decade later. I was still an idiot teen at the time, so I was happy to have it in my collection, but I recall being less than thrilled with it upon finally sitting down with the film. Given it’s leisurely pace and lack of action, I’m sure I probably found it boring. After all, we’re talking a period of time in which I attempted to convince myself that movies like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) and Van Helsing (2004) were worthwhile pieces of cinema.
The idiocy of youth eventually passed and now, over a decade later, I consider Dracula’s Daughter a favorite. Its place in the Universal Monster pantheon is a tricky one. Countess Zaleska, our titular “fiend”, finds little pleasure in murder and legitimately wants to abandon the dark power that holds her in its sway. Marya doesn’t want to be a creature of the night.
With her “father”, Dracula, dead, she wants nothing more than to regain the humanity she lost a century earlier when she was turned. Details on said turning are sketchy at best. The film picks up immediately after the events of the 1931 film, with Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) arrested after admitting to the murder of Dracula.
Countess Zaleska arrives to claim and destroy Dracula’s body, which she accomplishes with ease. It seems she hoped that his death and destruction would free her of her own vampiric affliction, but such is not the case. The rest of the film sees her battling her bloodlust and failing, ultimately obsessing over a noted doctor who she thinks might be able to cure her condition.
Countess Marya Zaleska might just be the saddest of the Universal Monsters. While each of their iconic creatures (save for Dracula himself) are at least a little sympathetic, most use their suffering (be it past or present) as an excuse to regularly commit horrible acts. Those that don’t make excuses are often just misunderstood and the cruelty of man forces them to react dangerously (Frankenstein’s Monster, the Gill-man).
Larry Talbot, the Wolf Man, comes closest to Countess Zaleska. He too wants rid of the curse that compels him to murder, but at least he tends to not remember the unspeakable acts he commits. Marya remembers them all. There’s an air of guilt and sadness that permeates Gloria Holden’s performance.
This is kept in check only by Marya’s selfishness, the only other primary facet of her desire for a cure. You can see this aspect of her personality rear its head most when Dr. Garth accuses her of murdering two London locals, as well as her threats against Judith. Marya might feel remorse for her actions, but she ultimately cares about her own future above the lives she has snuffed out. Say what you will about the Wolf Man’s bloodlust, but Larry Talbot is pretty selfless on his end of the pool. He doesn’t want a cure. He just wants to die.
Because Marya does not revel in her killing moments, the film relies more on its performances and dialogue to entertain. The latter is particularly important, as while not a comedy, this is an extremely funny film. It’s really no wonder that the studio initially wanted Frankenstein maestro James Whale to direct, as it’s perfectly in line with his more comedy-tinged work like The Old Dark House and Bride of Frankenstein.
The humor is key not only for entertainment value, but also to help balance out the film’s overall melancholy tone. This is a film just as steeped in vampire mythology as its predecessor, but with its titular character attempting to quit her undead ways, it plays less like a study in lust and more like one in addiction. Mind you sexuality permeates the film, with even a bisexual element at play, but it’s not foregrounded as in most vampire tales.
When Marya inevitably bites it (har har) in the finale, it’s impossible to not feel sorry for her. Sure, she probably had it coming after a century of murdering folks for their blood, but she really did want to change. In the end, it only further serves to retroactively make Dracula himself that much more of an evil bastard. Not only did he rob her of her humanity when he turned her ages ago, but he also ultimately robbed her of her free will. If that doesn’t speak to you amidst our society’s current issues with sexism and misogyny, I don’t know what will.
On top of all of this, it remains a very stylish and well-composed piece of cinema. It’s not as Gothic in nature as much of its other Universal Monster brethren, but when it heads into such territory, the imagery is incredibly striking. As nice as it is to see Carfax Abby and Dracula’s castle again, the most memorable seuence for me in this regard will always be Dracula’s funeral. From the fog-swept forest grounds to the funeral pyre to Marya carefully brandishing a cross, its an unforgettable moment in the middle of a forever underrated entry in the Dracula pantheon.
Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
Directed by Lambert Hillyer
Produced by E.M. Asher
Screenplay by Garrett Fort
Starring Gloria Holden, Otto Kruger, Marguerite Churchill, Irving Pichel, Gilbert Emery, and Edward Van Sloan