Monday, June 23, 2014

Dracula's Daughter (1936)

Director: Lambert Hillyer                                   Writer: Garrett Ford
Film Score: Heinz Roemheld                            Cinematography: George Robinson
Starring: Gloria Holden, Otto Kruger, Irving Pichel and Edward Van Sloan

After The Wolf Man, this is probably my favorite of the Universal monster films. Dracula’s Daughter has a unique atmosphere and a unique kind of story that seems unlike any other Universal horror film. This is also the last great horror film of the first cycle that began with Dracula and Frankenstein because Great Britain instituted a ban on horror films, which greatly reduced the profitability of those films due to the elimination of that ready-made English speaking audience. As a result, horror films went on something of a hiatus until World War Two began several years later. That ban also emboldened groups in the United States who were protesting the graphic images in horror films, and so that had an effect on the type of film this would become as well. The original screenplay by John L. Balderston was rewritten by R.C. Sherriff and reads like something Hammer films would produce nearly twenty years later with a lengthy prologue showing the origins of the vampire Dracula, and featuring Lugosi. But due to objections from the production code office, all of that was jettisoned in favor of the supernatural thriller written by Garrett Ford.

The story begins right where Dracula left off, with Edward Van Sloan driving a stake through Lugosi’s heart. But David Manners and Helen Chandler are nowhere to be found. Instead a couple of bobbies, Billy Beven and Halliwell Hobbes, catch Van Sloan and arrest him. Of course the head of Scotland Yard, Gilbert Emery, doesn’t believe in vampires and so Van Sloan is held on a charge of murder. Rather than a lawyer to defend him, he asks for psychiatrist Otto Kruger to come to his aid. Meanwhile a woman comes to the jail and steals the body of Dracula, burning it in a strange ceremony in the countryside. The woman is Gloria Holden and she is the daughter of Dracula, convinced that with his destruction she will be free of the curse of vampirism. But her hopes are dashed when the next night she is compelled to go out into the London night to feed on another victim. Kruger is brought back to the city by his secretary, Marguerite Churchill, and while he wants to believe Van Sloan he has his doubts as well. Once the body of Dracula is discovered missing, however, it’s a moot point and Van Sloan is freed. The two plotlines come together when Holden, hoping that her vampirism is psychological rather than physiological, seeks the help of Kruger to cure her--making Churchill very jealous in the process.

The film went through several incarnations in pre-production, outlined in detail in Philip Riley’s Dracula’s Daughter: An Alternate History, with as many directors tabbed for the production as there were screenwriters. The great James Whale was even considered at one point to film the R.C. Sherriff version. Ultimately the film was given to Lambert Hillyer who had just finished a successful shoot with both Karloff and Lugosi on The Invisible Ray. As they would do later with the Sherlock Holmes series that they purchased from 20th Century Fox, Universal updated the sequel to the present day, thereby cutting costs and enlivening the production with modern telephones and cars and airplanes, as well as modern psychological theory. There are still some great atmospheric touches however, both in the beginning and the end, as well as at the Whitby jail. There is also the requisite London fog in the street scenes and the eerie ritual burning of Dracula’s body. The film also benefits greatly from a complete score by composer Heinz Roemheld. It’s not as iconic as Franz Waxman’s score for Bride of Frankenstein the previous year but it is definitely suited to the action and has a wonderful main theme.

Gloria Holden is magnificent as one of the few female villains in horror film history. This was only her second film after an appearance in the comedy Wife vs. Secretary, and she went on to have a solid career in films as a supporting actress. Her lack of emotion and deep sadness are perfect for the role. Though much has been made of her seduction of Nan Gray, it’s important to note that in the context of the film her first victim is a male, thereby emphasizing that the blood is what’s important to her, not the individual. Otto Kruger is great too, but in a very different way. He can almost be seen as the prototype for the kinds of characters Peter Cushing would play in the Hammer horror films, a scientist who is not afraid of the supernatural at all. The screwball comedy romance with Marguerite Churchill, however, does border on the tedious at times. Edward Van Sloan has more breathing room in this film than the original and uses it to good effect. And the other great star is the distinctive Irving Pichel as Holden’s assistant. He had been a tremendous presence in early thirties films as an actor, but lesser roles like this no doubt led him to turn more toward directing in later years. Dracula’s Daughter may seem weak in comparison to Universal’s other horror films, but given a chance on its own it is a powerfully forward looking film that can’t fail to impress.

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