“She gives you that weird feeling,” proclaims my old Dracula’s Daughter (1936) poster. Well, fair enough. She does.
Made five years after the original Dracula (who we’ll meet later), this movie opens with van Helsing being arrested for the murder of the count. The old doctor is bailed out of jail by his former student, Dr. Garth, who was summoned from his vacation by his secretary/girlfriend Janet. While Garth dismisses the notion of vampires, he agrees to help defend his old teacher.
Meanwhile, Dracula’s body is stolen from the police station (and the comic guarding officer killed) by the mysterious Countess Zaleska, who burns the corpse, placing a crucifix on top of the flames. She proclaims herself free of her curse, although her creepy servant, Sandor, undermines her assertion at every turn. Eventually she reverts to her vampiric ways, handing her cloak to him one morning with the embarrassed words, “There is blood on it, again.”
She then meets Garth at a party, and is very drawn to him and his talk about curing alcoholics by making them confront their desire to drink. Since she is artistically talented, she hires a model off the street to paint a study of her head and shoulders– but it is to confront her desire to drink blood. Unfortunately, and in a scene that I still can’t believe got past the Hays/Breen Office, she gives in and attacks the model, who dies while in Garth’s care. Van Helsing argues that this proves his argument about Dracula being a vampire, but his student refuses to listen.
The Countess kidnaps Janet, returns to her father’s castle, and gives Garth an ultimatum– join her as a vampire or else. Out of options, he agrees. But Zaleska’s servant, furious at not being made a vampire himself, aims a crossbow at Garth. Van Helsing and another traveling companion shoot Sandor, whose crossbow misfires, striking the Countess instead. As she dies and Garth and Janet reunite, the companion says, “Beautiful, isn’t she?”
“As beautiful as the day she died, a hundred years ago,” van Helsing replies. A line that perfectly sums up its titular character and her tragedy.
If one wants to be picky, yes, we don’t know if she is Dracula’s actual daughter or not, but the rest of the movie, surprisingly, works well. Her obsession with Garth makes sense; she is alone except for Sandor, and he is attractive and tries to help her, although she does heartily resent his failure. Some might argue that the Countess is a lesbian because of the scene with the model, and while there are overtones of that– the bisexual vampire is now a staple of the genre. It would be interesting if this movie did it first.
As a vampire, Zaleska manages to be menacing, seductive, tragic, sympathetic, and unsympathetic in the course of a relatively short movie. That’s a tall order for any character (and the actress playing her), and both are to be commended. The “weird feeling” description is spot on!