Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: DRACULA'S DAUGHTER (1936)

Dracula's Daughter (1936) acts as a direct sequel to the 1931 Dracula, picking up mere moments after the earlier film ends. This time, however, the narrative focuses on Van Helsing (mysteriously altered to Von Helsing) and a new representative of the undead, the Countess Maria Zeleska, played with unearthly poise by Gloria Holden. Although its fame pales in comparison with that of the Lugosi picture, Dracula's Daughter offers an intriguing vision of feminine monstrosity, and it encourages us to pity the tragic fate of a beautiful woman enslaved by uncontrollable desires.

Edward Van Sloan reprises his role as the good doctor, who finds himself charged with murder for the deaths of both Renfield and Count Dracula. Unable to convince Scotland Yard of his sanity and his reasons for killing the Count, Von Helsing enlists the aid of his former student, Dr. Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger).  Meanwhile, Countess Zeleska arrives in London and begins preying on victims of her own with the help of her servant, Sandor (Irving Pichel). Jeffrey attracts the vampire's attention because she hopes that his skill as a psychiatrist can free her from her bloodthirsty curse, but her interest arouses the jealousy of Jeffrey's assistant, Janet (Marguerite Churchill), and of Sandor, as well.

Von Helsing provides a link between the two stories, and Edward Van Sloan is once again very convincing as the wise vampire hunter, but Dracula's Daughter really concerns itself much more with its title character and other new arrivals on the scene. Because of the earlier film, it takes less time to explain the back story and the habits of the vampire, so the movie is able to pack all of its action into a tight running time of just 71 minutes. Most of that focuses on the Countess' growing obsession with Dr. Garth, who is already engaged in a prickly, contentious courtship with his assistant, but the movie takes time out for a few attack scenes and a poignant funeral pyre for Dracula. We see visual and thematic links to the earlier story, as well, with the Countess rising from her coffin and avoiding mirrors and crosses.

All of the actors acquit themselves well, but the movie really belongs to Gloria Holden, whose exotic beauty commands the screen in frequent closeups lit from beneath to emphasize her unnatural nature. Unlike Dracula, the Countess longs for a normal life and yearns to escape her monstrous urges. She hopes at first that her father's death will liberate her, but a test of her will soon shows that her appetite for human blood remains unabated. She cannot help being what she is, but the darkness inside her is too powerful to resist. The camera registers the subtle struggle of her conflicting urges in shots that often show only the Countess' eyes, in which Sandor claims he can see death. Throughout the picture, she is a complex character, never reduced to mere monstrosity. Like the goddess Kali, she embodies contradictions. The Countess is an artist who creates and a killer who destroys. She is a woman who yearns for love and a predator who must devour. Holden invests her with grace and a sense of tragic grandeur, making us wish it that was not already a century too late to save her from her fate.

Be sure to note Hedda Hopper in a small role as Lady Esme and lovely Nan Grey as Lili. Lambert Hillyer, who directed Dracula's Daughter, was a silent film veteran who also made The Invisible Ray (1936) and dozens of B Westerns. Gloria Holden appears in The Life of Emile Zola (1937), The Corsican Brothers (1941), and The Eddy Duchin Story (1956). Look for Otto Kruger in Treasure Island (1934), Saboteur (1942), and High Noon (1952). Although he's quite menacing as Sandor, Irving Pichel is probably better remembered today as the director of more than 30 pictures, including The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and Destination Moon (1950).