Posted by Richard Harland Smith on November 30, 2012
As the boxer Sonny Liston used to say, “Life a funny thing.” If you squint real hard you can see, to the right of Robert Osborne and below the goldenrod banner that reads “Movie Morlocks Bloggers,” my name and the movie title DRACULA’S DAUGHTER (1936). I’ll be introducing the film tonight on TCM, sitting right there in the red chair, like you see all sorts of famous people do, and talking Universal horror and vampire movies, and gesturing with my hands, like an Italian. I was one of four Movie Morlocks chosen earlier this year to represent the writers for the TCM blog as official guest programmers, each of us charged with picking a movie that means the most to us. It wasn’t a hard choice on my part. Tonight’s broadcast completes a circuit that sparked for me nearly 40 years ago, when I was a young weirdo of 12 or so, late night TV showed tons of old movies, and life still held no end of boundless mystery.
Here’s how it began. Around 1972 or so, when I was a pre-teen MonsterKid living in my parents’ house in northeast Connecticut, Channel 4 out of Needham, Massachusetts, began running late night Friday-Saturday classic horror double features. I was at an age where my folks, who had been rearing kids by that point for a full decade, relaxed their standards a bit and gave me greater autonomy than they had my older sisters. I was allowed to stay up late on the weekends, as late as I wanted. The timing could not have been more perfect. Hosted by an offscreen “Uncle” George Fennell, CLASSIC HORROR was the old SHOCK THEATER package from the late 50s, Universal’s trendsetting fright films cranked out from 1931 until the genre petered out after World War II. At that early stage in the formation of my fear aesthetic, I was an avid reader of Famous Monsters of Filmland, a daily DARK SHADOWS viewer, and a student of the teachings of Hammer horror. Born in 1961, I had missed the classics and grew up on the movies that paid homage to and remade them. I had seen DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968) but not DRACULA (1931), FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969) but not FRANKENSTEIN (1931). All that changed with the first broadcast of CLASSIC HORROR. For three hours every Friday and Saturday midnight, I immersed myself in the seminal texts. I got myself up to speed very quickly over the course of two years, during which time the unseen Uncle George yielded to the horror hosted SIMON’S SANCTORUM. Sadly, I can remember only one of those double features, a pairing of THE INVISIBLE RAY (1936), an eerie science fiction serial killer flick starring Boris Karloff as an irradiated genius killing off a tick list of his enemies (among them Bela Lugosi), and DRACULA’S DAUGHTER, the first sequel to Tod Browning’s genre-sprouting classic. Both of these were, coincidentally, directed by Lambert Hillyer. A hard-working efficiency director whose career lasted forty years, Hillyer was known primarily for his Tom Mix, Buck Jones, Charles Starrett, and Johnny Mack Brown westerns. DRACULA’S DAUGHTER had been offered originally to James Whale but Whale wanted to put his back to horror and direct SHOWBOAT (1936) instead. Critics tend to write off Whale’s replacement as professional and perfunctory, but Hillyer did great work on these two undervalued genre classics, whose images and sounds have haunted me for four decades.
DRACULA’S DAUGHTER was one of the first TV broadcasts that I tape recorded, on a commercial cassette tape player/recorder that got a lot of use in our household. Back before most people had a home library of their favorite movies, when even VHS was ten years into an uncertain future, you either had to sit around and wait for them to replay on TV or turn up in a repertory cinema (of which there were, in my neck of the New England woods, approximately none). Or you got creative. I replayed that audio tape of DRACULA’S DAUGHTERS endlessly in my childhood bedroom, savoring every syllable of Garrett Fort’s ripe dialogue:
If you don’t know the story to DRACULA’S DAUGHTER, I’ll nutshell it for you. After Van Helsing’s (Edward van Sloan) destruction of the Undying Count at the end of the original film, Dracula’s offspring, the Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden), steals his body from the Whitby constabulary and burns it on a makeshift pyre in a bid to exorcise his influence upon her life. Yearning to be human, to be normal, she is thwarted by the machinations of her immortality-craving manservant Sandor (Irving Pichel) and her own infernal thirst. Seeking the aid of a London psychiatrist (Otto Kruger), Dracula’s daughter seems pointed toward a cure but, as any vampire worth his or her salt will tell you, unlife gets in the way.
Believe it or not, the person who first got the ball rolling on a DRACULA sequel was David O. Selznick, Mr. GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) himself. With the rights to Bram Stoker’s source novel tied up at Universal, Selznick bought an option on Stoker’s short story “Dracula’s Guest,” published posthumously. Bringing playwright John L. Balderston (who had adapted the novel for the stage) into his mad scheme, Selznick pitched a completely macabre, over-the-top, and patently grotesque follow-up, chock-a-block with sadomasochistic scenes of torture and bloodletting. Eventually, Selznick sold his interest to Universal, where James Whale was brought onboard. Disinterested, the sardonic director stirred the S&M pot, adding just enough homoeroticism to the mix to queer the deal with the censors. After Whale skipped merrily out of the picture, another director was brought in. Other writers were retained to bang out the treatment, actors were named in the trade papers, none of whom turned up in the picture. Months turned into years, the second director quit and Lambert Hillyer was brought in. When cameras rolled at long last, DRACULA’S DAUGHTER was already a small fortune in the red. Bela Lugosi made more money by not appearing in the film than he had for starring in DRACULA and all Universal got were some publicity photos that they couldn’t even use.
Maybe if DRACULA’S DAUGHTER hadn’t cost Universal so much money to make it would have had a better box office net. Mind you, it wasn’t a bomb, it just didn’t set the world on fire. Part of the problem was that horror was guttering at the studio. The Production Code, passed years earlier but slow in asserting itself, was finally exerting influence on movie content. Gone were the days of Bela Lugosi skinning Boris Karloff alive or Karloff crushing Lugosi in an industrial press. The grotesque was off the table and, though DRACULA’S DAUGHTER contained no moments of what you might call genuine horror, it would be the last horror film out of the Universal gate for several years. Over the decades, the film took something of a barracking from genre aficionados, dismissed as “disjointed” and second tier. In his 1966 overview Horrors!, Drake Douglas branded it “heavy, plodding, and dreary” while Alan Frank went so far as to say, in The Horror Film Handbook in 1982, that it was “totally unatmospheric.” Carlos Clarens was a dissenting voice in Horror Movies: An Illustrated Survey, calling DRACULA’S DAUGHTER “a serious, unpredictable horror film that, although lacking such distinguishing names as Karloff and Lugosi, did not deserve to go unnoticed as it did.” Clarens may have been the first critic to appreciate the lesbian undertones that would endear the film to a new generation of fans from the 1960s on, making it the Mother Hen of such Sapphic excursions as BLOOD AND ROSES (1965), THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970), THE VELVET VAMPIRE (1971), DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS (1971), THE BLOOD SPATTERED BRIDE (1972) and… well, the list goes on and on. DRACULA’S DAUGHTER is innovative in other ways, too, offering as it does one of the first (if not the first) sympathetic vampire, whose torment and confusion live on in the genre today.
As transgressive and forward looking as DRACULA’S DAUGHTER may be, none of these factors was the reason I kept the film close to my heart for so long. Part of the appeal for me has everything to do with timing — it was simply one of the first Universal classic horror films I ever saw and if memory serves I saw it before I saw DRACULA, so I had no standard with which to compare it. In retrospect, if you stand the film alongside BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), DRACULA’S DAUGHTER pales by comparison. DAUGHTER is small where BRIDE is big, quiet rather than over-the-top, and played straight rather than with James Whale’s customary (FRANKENSTEIN notwithstanding) sardonicry. There are no big moments… and I think that’s the charm for me. Some classics you remember highpoint by highpoint, with their little moments, the bridging scenes, the transitions, falling between the cracks like the toast crumbs that go down the gap between the kitchen counter and the stove. Pitched in a minor key, a chamber piece rather than a symphony of terrors, DRACULA’S DAUGHTER is all about oddly quiet moments that are suffused with the macabre: the discovery of Dracula’s corpse, Marya Zaleska’s bedazzlement of the policeman standing watch over the coffin, her cremation of her father’s remains, and her failed attempt to brighten her soul by sitting down at the piano.
What follows is the film’s best scene, as all of Marya’s optimistic, healing, life-affirming mental pictures are turned dark and disturbing by the Guignol innuendo of Sandor, who aspires to the very amoral immortality from which Marya flees . The dialogue between Holden and Pichel is priceless and their two diametrically opposed personalities could be seen to represent halves of the same divided mind, the one that seeks to create but desires to destroy, the one that hopes for the best and expects the worst, the one that staves off the inevitability of oblivion with fantasies of eternity. Though they are not romantically involved, Marya and Sandor are a great horror couple, so much more interesting than Edward and Bella or Sookie and Vampire Bill, and they don’t even need to get their kits off. I wonder if they could have been in any way an influence on Charles Addams in the creation of Morticia and Gomez.
DRACULA’S DAUGHTER allows me a glimpse into a world in which I want to live, though I know by the light of day the place would kill me. That’s the magic of the movies for you. I love the wet cobblestone streets of a pre-World War II London (albeit one faked on the Universal backlot), the garrets of Soho (where Marya and Sandor keep an artist’s studio/killing jar), the bookshop where Otto Kruger pretends to be a cop so he can extract information from the proprietor, the hospital where all of Marya Zaleska’s victims expire, the society drawing rooms, the home libraries, and even the Scottish hunting club (mocked up somewhere in the San Fernando Valley) from which Kruger’s acerbic hero is dragged to put DRACULA’S DAUGHTER into motion. The movie’s subdued approach gives me time and space to imagine myself in that world, tagging along with both protagonist and antagonist, a fly on the wall, an accomplice, an intimate. I fear that movies have lost the ability to include you in such a quiet way, so eager are they to sell you, market you, manipulate and blow you away. At age 51, I don’t really need or want to be blown away anymore. I’d rather be beguiled and charmed. DRACULA’S DAUGHTER does that for me and it was my honor to be asked by Turner Classic Movies to sit down with Robert Osborne and plead its case. I hope you’ll tune in tonight at 6:45 Pacific Standard Time, 9:45 Eastern Standard Time (I don’t know what the Carpathian Standard Time is but given that those people are often out at night I’m sure they’ve set their DVRs) to see the film (for the first or the nth time) and hear me talk about it. My fellow Morlocks Suzi Doll, Pablo Kjolseth, and Moira Neylon will be joining me and Robert for the evening and I think you’ll like the movies they have picked out as well. All hail the Movie Morlocks and the young muse Cinema!
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