Friday, October 26, 2007

The Forgotten Movies (Halloween Edition) - DRACULA'S DAUGHTER

I was part of the last generation of kids who grew up watching the old classic Universal horror films on broadcast television, and by the end of their regular TV run the films had been delegated to public TV (which was happy to have them) as opposed to the broadcast channels that had hosted them for so many years in the past. That was actually better for all concerned, since WNET, NYC's longtime PBS station, would air the films uncut and uninterrupted and often in blocks of two on weekends, meaning classic late-night double features on Friday and Saturday nights. It was during the summer of '81 (a memorable summer for me) that I dove in to all of these films (most of which I'd already seen, of course) and became a fan for life. The later films mostly became run of the mill fodder (precursors to today's many lame genre franchises), but the early stuff from the 30s remains some of the best cinema you're ever going to see, genre or otherwise; experimental, expressionistic, even self-expressive, and I'm not just talking about the two James Whale FRANKENSTEIN pictures, either. Edgar G. Ulmer's THE BLACK CAT is still a brutal shocker; Karl Freund's THE MUMMY, though pretty dull, is full of remarkable imagery; and though its script falls short at the end, Rowland V. Lee's SON OF FRANKENSTEIN is a more-than-worthy follow-up to BRIDE, which is still one of the all-time great films. But when revisiting the Universal horror cannon, the film that sticks out today and is a more than pleasant surprise is Lambert Hillyer's DRACULA'S DAUGHTER, a surprisingly mature and touching work that, though rarely spoken about, is one of the very best in the Universal cannon.

I had no real memory of ever seeing DRACULA'S DAUGHTER back when I was young, so when I got around to revisiting the Universal films on laserdisc around 1998, this was the one that stuck for me big time, because it wasn't your run-of-the-mill Universal film by any means. As the title implies, DRACULA'S DAUGHTER is about Marya Zeleska, the daughter of Count Dracula (beautifully played by Gloria Holden), and from the very first scene this one sets itself apart from many other films of its type (and from most any horror film of the era) by establishing the monster as a fully sympathetic character. She hopes her father's death will "cure" her of her vampirism and allow her to lead a normal life, and if there's one thing that we've all learned in vampire movies throughout the years, whenever vampires think they can cure themselves, it's a damn good shot that such is thing is only going to stand a snowball's chance in hell of happening. Though she finds herself falling in love with a mortal, her vampyric desires (and the intrusion of her servant Sandor, played by future DESTINATION MOON director Irving Pichel) end up getting the better of her. And I think you can guess that things may not end too happily.

For a picture that's only 71 minutes, DRACULA'S DAUGHTER is pretty damn rich in content; It's well-paced, the performances are among the best in the Universal genre films, the script is surprisingly intelligent and adult (it questions whether Marya is really a vampire or just delusional, and the psychiatric profession is respectfully regarded as a possible "cure" for her), the characterizations are much fuller than many of the other Universal films, and it's a very classy production in all regards. It's also rich in another manner: Lesbian subtext! The film is actually famous for it (clips were featured in THE CELLULOID CLOSET) thanks to a scene where Marya seduces and hypnotizes a half-clothed girl, and the scene works on every level. It's shocking, it's erotic, it's disturbing and over is easily the highlight of a really good picture. Beyond even that, many have come to speculate that the "cure" Holden seeks isn't to being a vampire but to being a lesbian, but it's to the film's post-code credit that never once is she seen as a villain, but a completely sympathetic (though tragic) character who the audience is to care for, if not root for, throughout. Lugosi's Dracula was never seen like this and it's a big plus to the film, as Marya remains fascinating to the audience (or at least the audience of me) all throughout the picture.

I was saying to someone the other day that vampires are so overexposed that they aren't really scary any more, but the good ones can be haunting and DRACULA'S DAUGHTER is indeed a haunting piece of work. I know that the film's reputation has grown more in recent years and it would be nice to see it continue so that more and more folks would pick up on this fine film. Needless to say, it's perfect Halloween viewing, especially if you're into old timey horrors and you want something that won't scare you in the traditional sense but will stay with you for a while. You can't say that about all of the Universal horror films, but you certainly can here.

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