#12 in my ranking of the Classic Universal Monster movies.
After the general boredom I felt throughout Werewolf in London, I felt like the best days of the Universal Horror output from the 30s was in the past, that the entirety of quality work came from James Whale, and that Carl Laemmle Jr. simply didn’t know how to make a movie without accidentally hiring the best talent. Well, I was happily surprised by Dracula’s Daughter. It’s more of a psychological drama than a horror movie, limiting its appeal to genre fans I imagine, but the surprisingly serious way it approached its title character combined with a fun central relationship between its male lead and his secretary, had me alternatively interested and entertained at a level I really did not expect.
Picking up moments after the end of the first entry in the whole franchise, Dracula, Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) is arrested for the murder of the count and requests the help of his psychologist friend Dr. Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger) to help him craft a defense that he is both sane and that vampires are real. Interrupted on an outing to shoot some birds in the Scottish highlands by his secretary Janet (Marguerite Churchill), he comes to London to help his friend. Hearing the tale of the macabre that was the professors previous few days, Garth ends up meeting the Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden), a Hungarian painter. Have you seen the title of the movie you’re watching? Yes, this is Dracula’s daughter. The movie makes no effort to hide this fact from the audience, and because of that it has to do something interesting with the information.
And you know what? It is actually interesting. The Countess steals Dracula’s body and burns it, invoking Satan in an effort to purge the evil hold over the dead vampire and any hold he had exerted on anyone else. She does this because she wants to be free of her cursed life as a vampire. Her familiar Sandor (Irving Pichel), is confident that she will not free herself of the urges and needs of life as a vampire. And, for a time, it seems like he’s right. She feeds on hangers on to society, those that won’t be missed, but this young psychiatrist intrigues her. He’s taken vampirism seriously enough to listen to and regurgitate the words of Van Helsing, and he talks of breaking habits and addictions with examples like drunkards. She wants to use him to break her of her own vampirism.
You see? That’s actually pretty interesting. None of it is in the least scary, though. The closest it gets is when Garth challenges her to confront her addiction (without realizing the nature of it specifically) and Sander brings a young woman Lili (Nan Grey) into their “art studio” to model. Since vampirism has always had a sexual connotation to the point where the Hays Office reportedly had bits removed from the rerelease version of Dracula of the count attacking Renfield, this makes Dracula’s Daughter a surprisingly sexually transgressive bit of film from the era that James Whale’s camp in The Bride of Frankenstein, particularly around Dr. Pretorius, seem rather tame.
The finale turns into the resolution of a love triangle between Garth, the Countess, and Janet that goes from London to Transylvania with the Countess wanting to claim Garth for herself forever. This angers her familiar, possibly the first cinematic depiction of a familiar as they have become to be known (kind of pathetic simps that are always lied to about becoming vampires someday) and leads to a conclusion that I really didn’t expect the film to take. I wasn’t necessarily expecting artistic truth, but I was expecting an effort to create a character that could continue a franchise. This was franchise filmmaking in its infancy.
The cast is capable, but they’re best when it’s Kruger and Churchill together, working off of each other. It’s a sort of proto-His Girl Friday in a way with the two throwing little witticisms at each other up to Janet quitting at one point, Garth accepting it, and then Garth simply tearing up the resignation and putting her right back to work that’s a fun little exchange. Holden manages her own as the titular character, feeling like a pseudo-Garbo well-enough to fill the part. Van Sloan is amusing once again as Van Helsing, proving to be one of the most reliable of character actors in the whole Universal Horror machine.
It’s deep enough to interest, fun enough to entertain, and brief enough to not overstay its welcome. I think the only way to really improve it would be to make it longer which would require a fair reworking of stuff to give a hypothetical extra twenty minutes the right kind of space to work. Still, it’s surprisingly solid for what it sets out to do. It’s also nice to see the most ornate of the Dracula sets come out of mothballs and put right back into giant spider webs once again.