Image via Wikimedia Commons
If you're a horror buff, there's a good chance you're a fan of 1931's Dracula, the famed Bela Lugosi-starring vehicle that, along with that same year's Frankenstein, constituted the incipient alpha moment of a movie genre that remains a long way from omega territory.
Vampire stuff, of course, remains massive in pop culture today, but what you might not know is how Dracula was originally presented to the public on Valentine's Day. Supernatural-focused movies were a no-go in Hollywood at the time: You could do macabre, and it could look like you had ghosts, griffins, and gremlins floating about, but come the final reel, you had to show that everything came down to some human agency, not dissimilar to how Scooby Doo always involved some dude dressed up in a costume.
But not Dracula. It was full bore on the ghoulies, so the PR angle became, basically, We got us a love story here—love that fights against death! This shit is kind of romantic. Eh? Eh? It wasn't at all, really, but that's why the film came out on the day Cupid does his thing. What's ironic is that Dracula had a follow-up, a sequel of sorts, that was not only quite romantic, but romantically progressive. It was a proper horror Valentine, you might say.
The film in question is 1936's Dracula's Daughter, directed by Lambert Hillyer. There is no Lugosi, and if you're wondering how a member of the undead spawned a child, go ahead and make a necrophilia joke and then just accept that. We pick up moments after the conclusion of the 1931 film. There's a dead lunatic who had liked to eat spiders off the ground, and Professor Van Helsing, having just staked Dracula through the heart, has a new problem: the cops have located him in the bowels of the abbey and want to charge him with murder. Fucking fuzz, right?
Van Helsing has to try and clear himself, but all of that is a bunch of folderol to get us into the new epidemic: Dracula's kid named Countess Marya Zaleska, played by Gloria Holden, is cruising the streets, much like her dad did, for comely female victims.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Or that's the premise, anyway. Holden wanted nothing to do with the role, having seen what the original film did to Lugosi's career, essentially typecasting him for the remainder of it. That reluctance for the part creates a mix of disdain and frisson in her performance. You detect the former in a sort of resignation to knowing what's in store for you, quality of life-wise, if you're a vampire, but the latter manifests itself in some of the most erotic moments in the early history of the cinema. The Countess—and it radiates right off her face—wants to put her mouth on these women with a rapacity that must have shocked some 1930s moviegoers and gone over the heads of others.
There are so many double entendres about blood and menses in the dialogue—the implication being that this Countess really likes her kink, and the greater the flow, the greater the fun.
But, because it is 1936, Universal studio requested script changes to "avoid any suggestion of perverse sexual desires," as exec Harry Zehner said. We even watch as she seeks a "cure" for her vampirism through psychiatry, a not-so-subtle nod to homosexuality being considered a mental illness at the time. Regardless, the psychology bit provides some real measure of horror, and also boosts your rooting interest. The viewer pulls for the Countess, even as the victim toll mounts. She is also, conveniently, a painter, and has her manservant bring her a girl to do a nude.
That particular scene, with the Countess unable to contain her desires, advancing upon the girl as the camera advances is a full-on rush. The model utters—gasps, really—some lines that echo the patois of consensual nonconsent play, and away we go. And just in case you didn't get what was going here, the camera then pans upwards, to show a mask on the wall, featuring a look that is part wracked smile, part mid-orgasm rictus.
The girl survives the Countess's lair, and dies later when questioned by one Dr. Garth, who the Countess has sought out for counsel with her vampirism/lesbianism. The point is not insignificant: it's the "old science," in a sense, that ends the model's life, as though its questioning rigors were too taxing—again, likely referencing how professional medicine stigmatized queerness at the time.
There's a scene later when the Countess seduces Dr. Garth's love interest, Janet. Cue an even more erotic sequence that cinephiles like to describe as one of the longest kisses that never was. Lips don't touch, but there is a mood, a gaze, a union of lust, such that a kiss would have a difficult time living up to this non-kiss. The closest film comparison I can think of is what one might call that multi-orgasmic session in Ingmar Bergman's Persona. Watch that, or watch what happens with the Countess and Janet, and it's not hard to think that Cupid, the God of love, and Onan, the progenitor of masturbation, might be drinking buddies.
There's an interesting detail, too, in the opening title cards, suggesting that the film was inspired by Bram Stoker's "Dracula's Guest," a fascinating fragment that some scholars think was a chapter excised from the author's most protean 1897 novel. In it, someone has a bad run of it in the snow, and is set upon by a female vampire. The terror comes from the surroundings, from the implacability of nature, of the cold, less so the creature he encounters. If you're a regular hiker, you know that one of the most unsettling feelings can be to encounter some other wanderer when you're deep in the woods. But with Stoker's fragment in miniature, and with Dracula's Daughter in big screen form, the visitation brings with it a feeling of euphoria. Some confusion, perhaps, at first, but euphoria all the same.
Colin Fleming is the author of The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss, a regular guest on NPR's Weekend Edition, and is writing a memoir, Many Moments More: A Story About the Art of Endurance.