Enjoy this Monday with Mildred!
Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
The opening credits move languidly through a series of soft filtered, vulva shaped gothic doorways, pulling the viewer deeper and deeper into mother Earth. It’s very 1930s Judy Chicago and really sets the mood for one of the queerest of the early Hollywood coded movies. The yucks start when men show up and bumble around a murder scene, marking this as a sequel to the original 1931 Dracula, with Renfield dead at the bottom of the stairs and Dracula staked by Von Helsing in the next room. Before you can say batty Count Dracula, his daughter shows up at the police morgue and carts his body off to a funeral pyre, hoping to cure herself of “unnatural” desires caused by her father.
Right off the bat the filmmakers run with the easily recognized (if you’re a 1930s film goer) codes for gay. Being “unnatural” is the worst thing you can be and everyone knew what that meant back then. Conveniently for the script writers, it can also be used to refer to monsters like vampires. Convenient. Sneaky. You had to be careful back then. Hopefully, we won’t be going back to those days in the near future.
Dracula’s daughter, the Countess Marya Zaleska played by Gloria Holden, is by turns scary and pitiable. I found her portrayal to be amazingly sympathetic. A lot of film historians attribute this to her reluctance to star in a horror film, but I don’t care about the why, only that there’s a serious depth of emotion on her face and in her movements. This film must have broken a lot of lesbian hearts back in the day.
I found myself making note after note on noticing yet another coded message in the script, movement of the actors, setting or theme. After the easy clues of the suggestively shaped doorway and parent shaming we move on the tropes of lesbian as whore and sexual predator as shown most starkly in two scenes. In one, she hides in the shadows of London’s perilous back alleys until a man catches her eye and she approaches him in the ageless ritual of a prostitute propositioning a john. Sure, it’s just feeding time for her, but the imagery is obvious. Equally obvious is a later scene in which the Countess has a young woman brought in to sit for a portrait and attacks her after getting her clothes half off. A double whammy predator. When the ancient ritual doesn’t rid her of her “unnatural tendencies” she tries modern science, begging a psychiatrist to rid her of the “horrible impulses”. Another lucky break for the scriptwriting code talkers is the myth of vampires not reflecting in a mirror, code for the self-hatred of lesbians who can’t look themselves in the eye. The Countess wears plunging dresses without a bra because lesbians are overly sexualized. The hapless model is pursued past a painting on the wall of Zaleska’s art studio of a naked woman kneeling before a skull. The Countess’ makeup is severe to the point of resembling a mask, with heavily painted on eyebrows and lashes long enough to cause a lunar eclipse, because a lesbian cannot show her real face. Even the movie poster proclaims “she gives you that weird feeling”.
Dracula’s Daughter was the last of the big Universal monster movies like The Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Mummy until they resumed a few years later. Better production values, like the script, art direction, and actor movement makes this a much better film than Dracula in every aspect, but I was especially impressed with the improved lighting that doesn’t look like the muddy bottom of a Mississippi swamp, and the type of camera movement you don’t normally see in early, stagy Hollywood films, here achieved through dolly tracking, great editing and clever focus pulls. There is even an expensive to produce outdoor scene, both showing up the differences of a “normal” daylight world and the dark world of the “unnatural” vampire/lesbian and also giving the director an opportunity to follow a car driving off, keeping this film more fluid than its progenitor.
If you are a fan of early Hollywood, especially the horror classics, I would highly recommend you watch this film, especially if you want a great introduction to the seldom noted queer cinema in the bad old days of hiding in plain sight. You may find yourself, like me, rooting for the mysterious, glamorous vampire and wishing she could just find a nice young woman to settle down with. Too bad she lived a hundred years and still missed gay marriage.
Dracula’s Daughter 1936 trailer