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This was part two of our New Year's Eve viewing, and because we watched this one after midnight it counts as the first film I watched in 2014. Start as you mean to go on, I say. It was a recent purchase by ms_siobhan, which of course I was very happy to watch given that I had only just rewatched Universal's Dracula (1931) myself on Christmas Day.

This is a direct sequel to the previous film, to the extent that the action starts immediately after the ending of the last one, with two policemen discovering Van (or here technically 'Von') Helsing loitering suspiciously outside the scene of an apparent murder. But unlike in the Hammer franchise, Dracula himself is not resurrected for the new story. We see what I presume was a waxwork model of Bela Lugosi lying staked to death in his coffin (apparently unaffected by the crumbling-into-dust phenomenon which Hammer made such play of, and which originates in Stoker's book), but he remains resolutely dead. Instead, as per the title, the vampire at the centre of this story is Dracula's daughter, the Countess Marya Zaleska. Exactly in what sense she is his 'daughter', when he was 500 years old but she says she became a vampire 100 years ago isn't quite clear, but I presume we're supposed to understand that he made her into a vampire, rather than literally being her father in the human sense.

The gender-switch apparently opened up a whole new angle on vampirism for the script-writer (essentially Garrett Fort, who also scripted the 1931 film, though there were two very different first drafts before he pretty much rewrote the entire story). Though there is some pathos to Dracula's character in the first film (as I noted in my review), it isn't the centre of that story. Here, though, the main narrative arc for the Countess concerns her attempts to rid herself of Dracula's influence over her after his death, including turning to a psychiatrist in a quest to overcome her vampiric urges. It looks very much like Fort (or one of his script-writing predecessors) found it easy to imagine a female vampire feeling guilt, experiencing conflicting urges, worrying about them, etc. - in short, Having Emotions - in a way that had not really occurred to him (or the writers of the original Dracula stage-play) for a male vampire.

The Countess is also distinctly more sexual / romantic about her predation than Lugosi's Dracula ever was (though, again, it's not totally absent with him). Here, Fort (or his predecessors) could draw on a well-established tradition of sexy female vampires, dating right back to Le Fanu's Carmilla, as well as on the early 20th-century film image of the vamp. Vamps, of course, were typically dark-haired, giving rise to one particular line which shows up the cultural gulf between the 1930s and the 2010s. When the Countess arrives at an evening party, looking amazing in one of many fabulous frocks which she wears throughout the film, the male romantic lead of the piece, Dr. Garth, cannot help but stare, prompting his would-be-girlfriend, Janet, to proclaim that she won't be leaving him alone "while there's a dangerous-looking brunette like that around." We're more used to hearing blondes described like that today, of course - which only goes to show what arbitrary social constructions lie behind both notions.

But the Countess proves alluring not only to male characters like Dr. Garth. There are also some very distinct overtones of lesbianism to the story, especially during one scene when the Countess lures a young woman off the street by asking her to pose for her as an artist's model, and then of course feeds on her, and another in which she nearly (but not quite) does the same to Janet, Dr. Garth's by-then-actual-girlfriend. The Wikipedia article on the film has a very good section on this aspect of it, and is quite right to say that the Countess's sense of inner conflict about her vampirism, and attempts to overcome it via psychiatric treatment, map well onto the early-20th century view of homosexuality as a mental illness which could be 'cured' in the same way.

The film lacks the expressionistic touches of Dracula (1931), since the people who had created that the first time round were no longer involved. Instead, it is primarily set in a solidly modern-looking London. During the last ten minutes, though, the action suddenly shifts to Transylvania, where the Countess has fled back to her castle with the kidnapped Janet, and we find ourselves in a world of curving staircases, dusty draperies, strange mists and broken battlements. It seemed a bit of a waste to me to have spent so much money building these sets for only ten minutes of action, but it was nice to see them at all.

Meanwhile, there are various other themes and touches which together add up to a really pretty decent film. The science vs. superstition theme from the original novel is retained in the way that Dr. Garth the psychiatrist is set off against the Countess with her supernatural powers, as well as a montage scene which shows the human characters using newspapers and telegraphs to try to track down Janet's kidnapper, and the way they chase the Countess to Transylvania by car and aeroplane. The idea of a parasitic aristocracy preying on the poor, also inherent in the original novel, is well-developed here too. The Countess is explicitly described as 'aristocratic' in the dialogue, and of course we see her preying on the street girl who believes she is getting work as an artist's model. But in the end her treatment of her social inferiors becomes her undoing, when her loyal servant, Sandor, turns against her because she has haughtily denied him immortality, and shoots her with a wooden arrow that acts on her like a stake.

The dialogue, characterisation and acting are all worth the price of entrance (or the DVD), too. ms_siobhan was particularly taken with the police chief who gruffly demands, "What new piece of asininity is this?" when summoned from his bed in the middle of the night by Van Helsing and his mad theories about vampires. But there are lots of great lines and great secondary characters to speak them. I particularly liked one friend of Dr. Garth's, played by Claud Allister, who was to all intents and purposes a slightly older Bertie Wooster, always looking for a good party and calling people "old fellow" a lot. Indeed, in all honesty I think that the characterisation, the acting, and the plot are all rather better here than in the 1931 Dracula, though I can see why the sheer originality of the first film, and its expressionistic atmosphere, somehow still mean that the sum of its parts is greater, even if the individual elements aren't.

Finally, it's pretty clear that Hammer picked up a few tricks from this film, just as they did its predecessor. These would include:
  • The entire idea of Dracula sequels.
  • Sexy female vampires with a strong lesbian overtones - the Karnstein Trilogy; Helen's approach towards Diana in Dracula, Prince of Darkness (though obviously this is mainly because both studios are drawing on an existing tradition which itself pre-dates Dracula's Daughter).
  • A female aristocrat who loathes her own vampirism - Baroness Meinster in Brides of Dracula.
  • A vampire's loyal servant - the two Kloves in Prince of Darkness and Scars of Dracula.
  • Who demands immortality - Johnny Alucard in Dracula AD 1972 (though this is inherent in Stoker's original character of Renfield, too).
  • And turns against his mistress / master - Klove in Scars.
  • The servant's name, Sandor - perhaps appropriated for Father Sandor in Prince of Darkness?
  • The principal vampire dying at the end in a way which is more exciting than a mere common-or-garden staking - every Hammer Dracula film ever.
In short, worth seeing in its own right, worth seeing as an important stage in the evolution of the vampire movie, and a damned fine way to start off the New Year!

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Comments

( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
the_lady_lily
Jan. 13th, 2014 12:57 pm (UTC)
I really enjoyed this when we saw it in Brooklyn, as I recall - very daft, but some nice depth and I enjoyed the gender twist very much too.
strange_complex
Jan. 13th, 2014 01:16 pm (UTC)
Ooh, did you get to see it on a big screen? Lucky you if so!
the_lady_lily
Jan. 13th, 2014 08:01 pm (UTC)
Yes, we did. It was brilliant. In that cheesy classic film sort of way :)
strange_complex
Jan. 13th, 2014 08:07 pm (UTC)
Excellent! Time spent watching vintage films as they were originally meant to be seen is never wasted.
ms_siobhan
Jan. 13th, 2014 04:47 pm (UTC)
I want her frocks.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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