Tuesday, November 06, 2007
Random Movie Report #38: Dracula's Daughter
DRACULA’S DAUGHTER is a little oddity that I happened to have out from Netflix in time for Halloween. It’s one of the earlier Universal horror follow-ups, and really a minor one by their standards; while it was easy for Frankenstein and the Mummy to be sequelized ad nauseum, the studio had trouble following up on Dracula in a really satisfactory way. It’s not the kind of story that invites follow-ups for some reason. Still, even though this is really just an average movie, it has a few points of interest for horror fans.
The film starts right where DRACULA ended, with Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan again) just having driven a stake through the Count’s heart. He isn’t even out of the crypt when two policemen, disturbed by the noise, find the old man standing in a tomb having admitted to killing a man. The whole “he was a vampire” defense draws some weird looks, so one of the doctor’s psychiatric colleagues, Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger) is called to London to help his friend out. In the meantime, Drac’s corpse vanishes from the low-security police department and is burned by a mysterious woman later revealed as Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden). She, apparently, is the titular offspring of Dracula, and is out to somehow purge herself of her father’s vampiric influence. Of course, when she arrives in London, bodies with neck wounds start showing up (the film actually repeats an “operating theatre” scene from the last one, establishing the same information), and the influence of her strange henchman Sandor (Irving Pichel), who is apparently her personal Renfield, isn’t helping. She goes to see Dr. Garth, and the two start falling in love, much to the consternation of Garth’s secretary/helpmate/obvious love interest Janet (Marguerite Churchill). (If you’re thinking this sounds vaguely like the plot of CAT PEOPLE, released six years later, you’re not alone. But there’s probably some antecedent I’m missing.)
If the film has one major problem, it’s that it can’t quite decide on the tone it wants. In some early scenes with the astoundingly goofy police constables, they seem to be going for the campy humor of BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, but with less success. In others there’s an effective sense of eeriness, and in still others they’re trying for some kind of tragic love story. In particular, a lot of time is spent having Garth and Janet bicker with each other in an attempt to set up their inevitable love, but here the actors overshoot the mark, and instead of Tracy and Hepburn they come across as two people who genuinely despise each other and have no reason to work together. Honestly, the attempt at a normal relationship arc sabotages much of the movie, taking up too much space and distracting us from the horror.
And it’s a shame, too, since Holden has been perfectly cast. Thin, pale, vaguely aristocratic, she comes across as unearthly and vulnerable, and plays her character’s internal turmoil well. There’s a very effective scene where the Countess, a painter, has Sandor hire a model off the street, who very quickly becomes her next victim; there’s a strong lesbian undertone to the sequence, and it’s drawn out just enough to be both spooky and sad. If the film had actually focused on her like you’d expect it to, it would be much better, but unfortunately it’s more about the bland Dr. Garth. (As for the Van Helsing case, it never really gets to trial, and that whole subplot has become a blind alley by movie’s end.) More’s the pity.
This isn’t really a dull movie, or a particularly bad one, but it’s the sort of thing I can only recommend to people with an interest in the genre. The Universal Horror movies do pretty much uniformly deliver a unique and interesting vibe, and there’s Holden’s performance to tide you over. More importantly the less-good parts are campy enough to quip your way through, and the whole thing’s too short to overstay its welcome. So, not a thumbs up, but some of you might like it.
Based on the novel "Dracula" by Bram Stoker
Suggested by Oliver Jeffries (a.k.a. David O. Selznick)
Story by John L. Balderston (with Kurt Neumann)
Screenplay by Garret Fort (with uncredited work by Charles Belden, Finley Peter Dunne, and R. C. Sherriff)
Directed by Lambert Hillyer