Daughter of the Damned
In 1931, Dracula and Frankenstein forever changed the face of Hollywood horror. Their contributions secured them status as classics for life. However, a few years later, well into the wave of fright flicks these movies inspired, viewers witnessed the start of many sequels and spin-offs to come. The Bride of Frankenstein needs no introduction, but 1936 also saw the debut of the less-heralded yet just as fascinating Dracula's Daughter. With all the atmosphere of the Bela Lugosi juggernaut, its offspring introduces photographic fluidity in what leads to a more complete picture. No longer consigned to a stagey and stiff disposition, Dracula's Daughter is allowed to flow and disturb viewers in ways its ancestor could only ponder.
We begin at the end of Dracula, with Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) having vanquished the grand-pappy of all vampires. Unfortunately, there are a couple of corpses Van Helsing must answer for, resulting in the good doctor being scooped up by Scotland Yard. Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger), a friend and fellow academic, is summoned to defend him, though he becomes waylaid by the arrival of an alluring newcomer. Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) has taken residence in bustling London, and while she too is, as the title indicates, a fanged one, she's come to kick her bloodlust for good. When her efforts to do so fail, Zaleska turns to Garth, the man who will either cure the Countess or be the next to fall under her deadly spell.
Based only loosely on a Bram Stoker tale, Dracula's Daughter was mainly the product of Universal's imagination. With the main monster eighty-sixed and demand for a follow-up high, there seemed no choice other than for Drac's twisted family tree to branch out. But in place of a quickie cash-in the studio would make tons of in the '40s, audiences got a film more ominous, artistic, and daring than anticipated. Once more, we have a story about the pursuit of purity, only told by someone for whom obtaining it isn't so easy. The Countess may be a vampire, but she's ready and willing to confront her inner demons in order to rid herself of them. It's when she stares down her unholiest desires (in a famous scene with Nan Grey as a young model) that we see her as a gal who blinks when she gazes into the abyss.
While retaining an air of formality, Dracula's Daughter wavers not as it ventures into the darkness. If anything, it's scarier because it's so refined -- and because the Countess is such an ambiguous character. Appearing first wrapped head to toe (save for those penetrating eyes), Holden embodies the notion of a regal predator as well as, if not better than, Lugosi did. Zaleska's fate may feel foregone, but Holden's performance conveys her hunger for redemption as effectively as her thirst for blood. Van Sloan's role as Van Helsing isn't as expanded as you'd think, though it doesn't need to be; the man says it all when he takes a seat and coolly advises the police they're in for a fight with the cunning Countess. Of equal prominence but less interest is Kruger, a better leading man than David Manners in Dracula but still off-puttingly bland on occasion.
Dracula's Daughter signaled the end of Universal's first cycle of classic horror. When it would return, focus would be more on franchising and campy creations than on spooky style. But when today's terrors retreat behind spasmodic editing and deafening orchestral cues, they only make something as sharp and deliberate as Dracula's Daughter taste all the sweeter.
MY RATING: *** (out of ****)
(Released by Universal Pictures; not rated by MPAA.)