Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Exhuming Dracula's Daughter

Pity the female monsters we find in the Universal canon. Their male counterparts seem to possess a limitless immortality, with Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, the Mummy, and Larry Talbot all returning in a long run of sequels, even if in different incarnations. Not so for the Bride of Frankenstein, the She-Wolf of London, or Dracula's Daughter, each of whom find their cursed conditions (or even existence) ended in their first feature. While the image of Elsa Lanchester as Frankenstein's Bride has proved the most iconic, Gloria Holden's portrayal of Countess Marya Zaleska stands as perhaps the most memorable performance--this despite the fact that the finished film very little resembled screenwriter John Balderston's original idea for the production. According to David Skal, Balderston originally wanted to "play up SEX and CRUELTY legitimately" by focusing more on the brides of Dracula found in the Count's Transylvanian home. In THE MONSTER SHOW, Skal writes, "Cracking a bullwhip against the stone floors, [Dracula's Daughter] subdues her evil stepmothers like an animal trainer, and, in a scene borrowed directly from Stoker's novel, offers them a squalling infant in a sack to feed upon." Apparently, the censorship office rejected the material, robbing us of a film that would have included the return of Dracula in flash-back scenes consisting of even more overtly sexual material.

Even without such scenes, DRACULA'S DAUGHTER contains some striking material. Focusing solely on Countess Zaleska, the film presents us with a character trying to free herself from the unholy urges inherited from her father. In a scene memorable for its play of light and shadow, she burns his body in a funeral pyre, but ultimately cannot separate herself from his legacy, which sometimes manifests itself in weird music and art, at one point involving a fetching prostitute standing in as a model, resulting in a wonderful scene suggestive of lesbian desire. The film's tag-line--"She Gives You That Weird Feeling"--somehow manages to hold true even today.

A recent graphic novel, DAUGHTER OF DRACULA (2007), written by Ron Fortier and illustrated by Rob Davis, takes the character's implied eroticism into literal territory. Maintaining the name "Marya," Fortier sets his story during World War I and focuses upon a love affair between the vampire and the German ace, Baron Von Richthofen, otherwise known as the Red Baron. Fortier builds upon the character's cinematic counterpart's vulnerability and sensitivity, while at the same time giving her a level of assertiveness and aggression that would have been unacceptable to American audiences in the 1930s. Paced very well, the narrative reaches an unusual (if slightly improbable) conclusion as far as vampire lore goes, while at the same time doing a satisfying job of tying in real historical details of Von Richthofen. Artwise, Davis provides some striking frames, capturing erotic moments as well as the more violent scenes. At first, Marya's features struck me as too angular, but gradually, this personal bias gave way to an understanding that such physical features emphasized her sense of presence and strength. Recommended as supplementary reading to the film, the book can be found here.


MonsterScholar said...

I will definitely check out Fortier's graphic novel. I was always so disappointed by the Countess' death in her first film. She seems like such a sad and haunted creature who, instead of finding power in her difference, turns to male psychiatry to "cure" her. I wish the bullwhip and baby scene had made it into the film also, it would have been smokin'

Zahir Blue said...

Thanks for the extra info. Don't know if you were aware of this, but Anne Rice once said Dracula's Daughter was her favorite vampire film. The title character really is the first "reluctant vampire" which of course has its heirs as an archetype with Barnabas Collins, Nicholas Chevalier, Bill Compton and Edward Cullen (hmmmm...if the trend had been a bit more faithful...Barbara, Nicole, Wilma, Edwina...hmmm).

Also, in many ways the film Nadja was a re-make of this film, with a few details from Vadim's Blood and Roses tossed in.