I'll remember this film for two things. The first is its villains. Gloria Holden plays Morticia Addams... sorry, I mean Dracula's daughter, aka. the Countess Marya Zaleska, and Irving Pichel is her hulking manservant Sandor. They're a memorable couple and discussing them properly will take a little while.
The second thing is all the comedy.
I couldn't believe how funny this film is. What's more, it's clearly deliberate. Not all of it works, as with for instance the comedy constables at the beginning, but when it's it's good it's on fire. I can't imagine how the fanboys dare to make a fuss about Abbott & Costello in 1948. The relationship between our hero Dr Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger) and his secretary Janet (Marguerite Churchill) is brilliant and would be worth watching even if the rest of the film were rubbish. I love it. He's breathtakingly rude and clearly going to marry her. I can't think of anything else to say on this point, but Kruger and Churchill are so awesome together that I'm scrabbling around for reasons to scream "FUNNY" for a few more paragraphs. They're funny. I laughed. Damn, they're funny. Funny.
Mind you, I rolled my eyes when we got to Transylvania, also known as the Land of Jolly Ethnic Stereotypes. There's just been a wedding. I can't pretend that they were openly going for laughs here, but it took a sense of humour to put all that on screen.
What makes this particularly interesting though is the way in which the comedy reflects the horror. Kruger and Churchill are the anti-matter opposites of Holden and Sandor, to the extent that Janet becomes jealous of Countess Zaleska. Dr Jeffrey is a psychiatrist who helps people, while Zaleska is a vampire who eats them. This film is full of double-acts. (Were it a Doctor Who story, we'd be using the word "Holmesian".) Edward Van Sloan's Van Helsing even gets his own sparring partner in Sir Basil Humphrey (Gilbert Emery), although as a mere returnee from the previous film he doesn't really have anything to do with the plot this time and it would have probably been better without him. The only saving grace is that he's a good actor.
It's time to talk about the villains, who are extraordinary.
We'll start with Gloria Holden, who's hard to like but fascinating. Like Lon Chaney Jr would do in the next film in this series, she creates a vampire who's a fully realised character rather than just a snarling animal. What's different with Holden is how coolly she plays it. She's like a porcelain figure, cold and detached, since Countess Zaleska hates being a vampire and all that icy self-control is how she's dealt with a hundred years of pain. Lugosi and his spawn let everything show, but Zaleska goes to the opposite extreme and has herself under complete control at all times. She's fascinating to watch and I'm full of respect for the choices Holden made in this brave performance, but she's perhaps a bit too emotionless for me. Harsh critics might call her lifeless. You can't argue with the rationale behind it, though.
Zaleska's looking for a cure. Bizarrely for a while she's under the impression that vampirism is a purely mental condition, which is clearly just a creaky plot contrivance to justify her interest in Dr Jeffrey. However the film goes to great lengths to show the mental influence that vampires can exert over the living and even perhaps each other, so I can forgive it as being as much as anything else proof of the character's desperation.
Furthermore she really is Dracula's daughter. That was freaky. It would be easy to explain this away as vampiric siring rather than biological "Mummy and Daddy love each other very much", but that doesn't seem to have been the filmmakers' intent. I didn't notice at the time, but apparently also Holden also only blinks once during the whole film. It's during a medium shot during Lady Hammond's party.
I also love Holden's delivery of the traditional, "Thank you, I never drink... wine."
Then there's Irving Pichel's Sandor, who's this malevolent lump of evil and as sinister as hell. The film's almost over before we've learned what he is and what keeps him going. Is he human? Vampire? Until then, we only know that he's big. Creepily he doesn't want Zaleska to find her cure, but instead takes pleasure in going out to bring back girls for his mistress. Male victims she can find by herself. Vampire literature and Carmilla in particular (which this draws upon) are famous for having sexual subtext and it's hard not to read lesbianism into one scene where Zaleska feeds. The girl thinks she's going to model for a painting and takes off her blouse before thinking twice and deciding she wants to go home.
The film starts with those two policemen walking in on the last scene of the 1931 Dracula, thus finding a Van Helsing who's just hammered a stake through Dracula's heart. He has some explaining to do.
There's a silly bit at the climax, though. That can't be Zaleska's heart! Did Van Helsing fail anatomy? Personally I don't believe she's dead.
Behind the scenes this film was a train wreck. After Bride of Frankenstein, Universal wanted a female monster for its second Dracula film, which one must presume was just one item on a laundry list of requirements. Somehow they let the movie spend years in development hell and become at $278,000 one of their most expensive productions of the 1930s. Four days after production wrapped, Universal's principal debtor, Standard Capital Corp, took over the studio and kicked out the Laemmles. Universal had hired James Whale, Bela Lugosi and later top director A. Edward Sutherland, even going so far as to put "Pay or Play" clauses in some of their contracts, but then dithered for so long that the talent all moved on to other projects. Sutherland pocketed $17,500 for not directing this film, while his actual replacement, Lambert Hillyer, earned just $5,000. In the end, the only person to return would be Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing.
There's a coincidence in how both Hammer and Universal chose to follow up on their initial Dracula and Frankenstein successes. Those series' first sequels include Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Brides of Dracula (1960) and Dracula's Daughter (1936), with Dracula himself absent in all of them. Then Universal's second sequels would be Son of Frankenstein (1939) and Son of Dracula (1943). The reasons are understandable. What can we do differently? Make it a woman! What next? Let's do his son! The only series not to conform to any such pattern would be Hammer's Frankensteins, which were focused on Cushing's Baron rather than the monster.
Apparently Dracula's Daughter used to be considered to be one of Universal's weaker horror films, partly because of its lack of stars such as Bela Lugosi. It's since been rehabilitated thanks to the moody cinematography and Holden's performance. It's also unusual by horror standards in that it has no young actors, even in roles that on the page would seem to demand a twenty-year-old. The junior Comedy Constable hasn't earned his stripes yet, despite being played by someone who's pushing retirement age. That was a head-scratcher, but as a fan of acting, I approve. I hesitate to call this a horror-comedy since those are words that conjure up all kinds of bad images, mostly from the 1980s, but instead I'll simply call it a horror film that made me laugh. Thoroughly entertaining, as always from Universal.