Thursday, October 4, 2012

Psychobabble's 150 Essential Horror Movies: Addition 4

Every day this October, I'll be adding a film to Psychobabble's 120 Essential Horror Movies to bring the list up to 150. Today’s addition is:

26. Dracula’s Daughter (1936- dir. Lambert Hillyer)

Amidst Universal’s initial horror frenzy, producer David O. Selznick bought the rights to Bram Stoker’s short story “Dracula’s Guest”, often believed to be the excised opening chapter of his most famous novel. The story arguably introduced Jonathan Harker (never mentioned by name) and followed his weird encounter with a female vampire while heading to Dracula’s castle. Aside from the presence of a lady vampire, the treatment John Balderston composed had nothing to do with Stoker’s story. It did offer a banquet of S&M sex, explicit homosexuality, and bizarre fantasy that would have made Mad Love seem ho hum. Not surprisingly, Balderston’s concept for Dracula’s Daughter was nixed by production-code führer Joe Breen, who branded the treatment “dangerous.” Balderston lost the job and James Whale, who’d been slated to direct, went off to direct his pet musical, Showboat. Garrett Fort’s screenplay was considerably less dangerous, though gay undertones are still present when Gloria Holden’s Countess Marya Zaleska seduces a street girl. Critics have often read much into her desire to get “deprogrammed” from her vampirism (lesbianism) by a psychiatrist. While the former is certainly intentional, the latter is a matter of debate. Edward Van Sloan is back as Van Helsing, who quite logically, is accused of murder when the authorities find him hovering over the Count’s corpse. Sadly, Bela Lugosi is absent. The body is just a wax figure, though it does set up Zaleska’s moody al fresco funeral for her dad. Such enthralling sequences help to mask a weak script, as does the haunted grace Holden brings to the title role. She’s much more of a tragic figure than Dracula because she so thoroughly does not want to be a vampire. She’s certainly Universal’s most reluctant monster until Larry Talbot, and all the more sympathetic because Otto Kruger’s misogynistic Dr. Jeffrey Garth is such a loathsome protagonist. Holden singlehandedly makes Dracula’s Daughter Universal’s most melancholic monster movie. The film also presents the first time in which a female monster really carried a picture, and characters from Princess Asa Vadja in The Mask of Satan to Lady Sylvia Marsh in another Stoker adaptation, The Lair of the White Worm, owe her a debt. During its own time, the severely tamed Dracula’s Daughter was more symbolic of the wind going out of Universal’s cobweb-caked sails. Like so many of its beasts, the studio’s horror strain would largely fall dormant for the next few years, to be revived bigger, meaner, and dumber than ever when the time was right.  

See this piece in context as part of Psychobabble’s Essential Horror Movies of the 1930s here.
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