Sunday, October 11, 2009

“You know, this is the first woman's flat I've been in that didn't have at least 20 mirrors in it.”

If you thought 1931 saw the end of the Universal Studios Dracula films, you would be horribly and totally wrong. It was a hit, so the idea of more Dracula related films was enticing, so much so that in 1936, Dracula’s Daughter, a direct sequel that featured exactly what it said it would: the daughter of Count Dracula.

The story picks up immediately (and I mean immediately) after the events of Dracula. Some London cops barge into Carfax Abbey and find Renfield’s body barely cool and Van Helsing comes out, trying to explain why there’s a dead man at the bottom of the stairs and a dead man in a coffin with a stake in his chest. Naturally, they arrest him, since they think he’s a loony and take him to jail. However, at the prison, a mysterious woman arrives and makes off with Dracula’s corpse and burns it in the woods. She is the Dracula’s Daughter (dun dun DUN!), and wishes to be free of her vampiric condition. When she finds out that disposing of her father’s body didn’t do the trick, she tries to enlist the aid of a psychologist who studied under Prof. Van Helsing in his younger days who is also called in to help the good Prof. clear his name.

Professor Abraham Van Helsing: Edward Van Sloan is the only character to carry over into this movie and he’s immediately arrested and suspected of being either a nutcase or a murderer (or both). Fully confident in his own innocence and in science’s inability to have an answer for everything, he’s really more of a subplot character here, but it was a pleasant surprise to see Van Helsing back and in a slightly different position from his leadership role in the last movie.

Countess Marya Zaleska: Gloria Holden plays Dracula’s DAUGHTER! (dun dun DUN!) and she’s not bad, actually, despite being called a Hungarian Countess when Drac’s from Transylvania (which is in Romania). The two regions are close, but they aren’t THAT close. She’s got the hypnotic eyes and plays the role as somewhat of a junkie. She may think she wants to be free of her vampiric condition, but when burning dad’s body in a pyre didn’t work, well, she backslides pretty quickly. Still, despite being the Villain, she adds some depth and pathos to the character. Her point of no return comes when she has her henchman bring back a young woman to model for her paintings in the middle of the night (yeah, nothing suspicious there) and attacks the poor girl, achieving two things. 1) Inability to escape her cravings, and 2) providing some pretty obvious lesbian/bisexual sub context, which is pretty ballsy (ironically enough) of the filmmakers to do at that time.

Sandor: Irving Pichel (who looks an awful lot like Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement) is the Countess’ glowering henchman. Apparently he’s hanging around because he himself wants to become a vampire.

Dr. Jeffrey Garth: Otto Kruger is our official Hero, a psychologist who’s an old student of Van Helsing’s. When the old guy’s arrested for murder, he comes to London to try and help him out, but there he catches the eye of the Countess and the plot REALLY converges. He’s very much a skeptic, but at least he’s not THAT stupid when the clues start putting themselves together.

Sir Basil Humphrey: Gilbert Emery plays the cranky, crotchety chief of Scotland Yard who doesn’t believe in vampires and is really annoyed (in a very British way) by Van Helsing and later Garth for dragging him along on this adventure. He was fun.

Janet: Marguerite Churchill plays Garth’s sassy, incredibly competent secretary, and you know what? She’s awesome. Smart, sharp-witted and beautiful, Janet trades rapid fire barbs with Garth pretty much during her entire screen time, but she also becomes the damsel in distress, but thanks to her characterization in the lead up, you actually care about her and are pulling for her to make it the whole way. She’s fantastic, my favorite character in the film, and a badass.

Lambert Hillyer brings a competent eye to the movie, and a lot of shots are really well done, but the atmosphere of the movie is not at all horrific. Aside from a few moments of visual brooding and darkness, most of the movie features actors giving comically over the top facial reactions. Its odd that a direct sequel to Bela Lugosi’s classic is so light and fun in tone.

Okay, Bram Stoker gets credit for coming up with Dracula, then Garret Fort, John L. Balderston, Kurt Neumann, Charles Belden, Finley Peter Dunne & R.C. Sherriff all contributed to the script (with Fort getting the full credit as in Dracula). Interestingly, “Oliver Jeffries” (David O. Selznick according to IMDB) gets the credit for “suggestion.” I have the image of a guy in a Hollywood studio going “Hey, for the next movie, how about you have a lady vampire who’s Dracula’s Daughter (dun dun DUN!)”

Anyway, the plot itself is a bit silly (no real explanation as to the exact nature of Dracula’s Daughter (dun dun DUN!) and if she became a vampire after she was born or…never mind, but the pacing is fantastic for the runtime. The rest of the plot is fairly self-contained and things get wrapped up nicely at the end. Dialog is frequently hilarious, and it seems intentionally so. Everything Janet says is awesome and/or funny, and its intentional. The movie also throws in some really interesting ideas, like when the movie goes back to Transylvania and we see a bright and cheerful wedding ceremony attended by jubilant peasants (a stark contrast to the first movie). Then a light flicks on in Castle Dracula and the peasants all crap themselves and flee indoors, bolting the doors. It’s a hilarious “when the cat’s away” moment, and I loved it.

By ‘36, Hollywood was much more comfortable with sound, so this movie has a full blown score from composer Heinz Roemheld. Its not bad, though a bit too much on the bombastic side for the more down to earth nature of the movie.

Dracula’s Daughter was a pleasant surprise as a part of the Dracula: Legacy Collection put out by Universal (a nice series of boxed sets containing a well known Universal Monster movie and several lesser known spinoffs/sequels). In no way is it a success as a scary movie, it makes up for it with some genuinely interesting ideas (like Van Helsing having to deal with the legal ramifications of jamming a stake into a man, vampire or not) and a cast that’s full of wit and charm. It may not be a classic film, but its enormously fun.

No comments: