Dracula's Daughter / Son of Dracula
Sibling rivalry. It's the stuff of great literature and even better gossip. It's best when two siblings are not just forced into competition with each other, but when they must follow in the footsteps of a more eminent parental predecessor. Isn't it fun to watch Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen fight it out in failed B-movies and declining sitcoms while Martin Sheen kicks back in the (mock) Oval Office and laughs?
With the Universal double feature release of Dracula's Daughter and Son of Dracula, we get to watch two obscure offspring battle for the spotlight previously dominated by their infamous dad. Who will come out the victor in this catfight?
Dracula's Daughter takes up immediately where Bela Lugosi's Dracula leaves off. Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan, reprising his Dracula role) is found in the bowels of the Count's castle surrounded by the corpses of the dead vampire and his assistant Renfield. He is arrested and, when interviewed by Scotland Yard detectives, is immediately written off as insane because of his insistence on regaling the authorities with stories of vampirism. In desperation, Van Helsing implores the detectives to summon Dr. Geoffrey Garth (Otto Kruger), a psychiatrist friend and former student. Van Helsing believes that Garth's commitment to and belief in his mentor will convince him to provide a solid testimony of his sanity.
In the meantime, we are introduced to a strange, dark-haired, even darker-eyed woman (Gloria Holden) who steals into the county morgue and removes Count Dracula's body with the help of her Lurch-like assistant, Sandor (Irving Pichel). Together, they burn Dracula's body and commit his ashes to the ground. The woman seems to think that this will release her from some unexplained but burdensome curse. At the end of the midnight ceremony, however, she seems unconvinced of this. Her eyes retain their haunted appearance as Sandor slips Dracula's ring on her finger.
Back at Scotland Yard, Garth has arrived at Van Helsing's side. He is unconvinced of the existence of vampires but agrees to help him in any way possible. At a dinner party that night with the elite members of London society, the strange woman who burned Dracula's body arrives and is introduced as Countess Marya Zaleska. When the conversation turns to Van Helsing's plight and apparent obsession with vampirism, Countess Zaleska is all ears. She is fascinated with Garth's insistence that vampires suffer from psychotic delusions that can be cured through simple psychotherapy just like countless other mental disorders. Zaleska takes Garth aside and expresses intense interest in his methods, but does not explain her specific ailment. Nevertheless, Garth agrees to set up a consultation with the countess.
But it doesn't work. No matter how hard she tries, Countess Zaleska cannot overcome her fixation, which is revealed to be - what else? - blood. Preferably the blood of young women. Night after night, she sends Sandor out to collect her prey. He usually chooses some young, hungry runaway that he can tempt with offers of food, drink and warmth if they agree to pose for his mistress, who he claims is a painter.
It seems the countess has a good thing going. Her assistant is loyal, she is seeking psychiatric attention, and no one suspects her of preying on young street girls. But things start going downhill fast. First, Garth refuses to continue treating her because she is too stubbornly secretive and he cannot adequately assess her situation. Then, the police find her latest victim in a catatonic state and Garth is able to coerce her out of her hypnosis long enough to extract the details of her abduction before she dies. Zaleska knows she is trapped but desperately wants release from her vampiric curse. Garth is the only one who can help, but he has already refused her. In desperation, she kidnaps Garth's feisty fiancée, Janet, in a last ditch cry for help, but not before she reveals to Garth that she is Dracula's daughter. Garth enlists Van Helsing's aid (should have believed the old geezer from the start!) and they head off to Transylvania to rescue Janet and rid the world of Dracula's spawn.
Dracula's Daughter is a valiant attempt by Universal to capture the essence of Bela Lugosi's superb rendition of Bram Stoker's classic vampire legend, but with a feminine spin. And for the most part, they succeed. They were able to snag Edward Van Sloan to step into Van Helsing's shoes once again and they even manage to sneak in the famous "I never drink\u2026wine" line. Gloria Holden's Countess Zaleska embodies the 1930s standard of what a female vampire should look like - darkly beautiful, mysterious and sophisticated, just like her father. Her assistant Sandor is equally effective, with his deep voice and creepy, overly made up visage.
However, Zaleska never really struck me as being very dangerous or threatening. If Sandor wasn't standing right over her shoulder all the time, I think any one of her female victims would have been able to take her. There could have been some great dramatic tension and suspense because of her reluctance to follow her vampiric urges. I pictured her ready to bleed a victim, especially a crucial one like Janet, but fighting herself to the very end. But Zaleska never appears to be sorry for what she has done or is about to do. She is very matter of fact about killing. Hence, no suspense and, consequently, no sympathy for her character. I found the idea of treating vampirism as a curable psychological affliction fascinating - it's too bad the idea wasn't taken to the next level.
Zaleska's reluctance could have been a wonderful plot device and a twist on the usual struggle of an antagonist who resists becoming what they are because of their inheritance. Simba had to go back to Pride Rock because he was the rightful Lion King and it was the right thing to do. But Countess Zaleska had to defy her inheritance because it the right thing to do. Some people hate the fact that they inherited their father's cleft chin or their mother's curly hair. Zaleska is resentful because she took after her father. This makes her an entirely different kind of vampire. She was born into her monstrous role, not made. The anguish of this reluctant birthright should have been at the core of Dracula's Daughter.
Also notable (and common in stories of female vampires) are the lesbian overtones. Countess Zaleska overwhelmingly prefers female victims. She could very easily have Sandor forcibly restrain her prey, but she instead soothingly offers to paint their portrait, which includes removing some of their clothes. I thought that maybe Zaleska felt women were easier to kill because they are not as strong and therefore she could overcome them if they resisted. But what man would resist a beautiful woman's seduction? In that respect, it would have been easier for her to prey on men! But Zaleska obviously prefers the ladies. Unfortunately, this is another ambiguous plot device. At the film's climax, Zaleska offers to trade Janet's life for Garth's - she is willing and desperate to offer him eternal life by her side. So she tempts women, but really wants a man. It is this ambiguity that dampens the effectiveness of the character's conflicts.
But at least Dracula's daughter was prominent in her film. In Son of Dracula, Lon Chaney Jr. portrays the Count's male progeny, but with a minimum of screen time. Son of Dracula focuses on a Southern belle named Katherine, or "Kay" (Louise Allbritton) and her fiancé Frank (Robert Paige). After a trip to Budapest, Kay has become deeply entrenched in an unhealthy interest in the occult, including vampires, voodoo and black magic. Kay has extended an invitation to the dashing Hungarian Count Alucard (get it? Look again closely) to come visit her at her plantation, Dark Oaks. Before he arrives, she consults a Gypsy fortuneteller who foresees that Kay will marry a corpse and live in a grave. Obviously not one to be put off by such glum predictions, Kay blandly accepts the premonition and goes back to eagerly awaiting Alucard's arrival.
Although Kay might be blasé about her newfound interests, her friends are not so oblivious to the inherent danger she is putting herself in. Frank and family friend Dr. Harry Brewster (Frank Craven) investigate Alucard by calling upon the expertise of Hungarian professor Dr. Lazlo (J. Edward Bromberg). Lazlo insists that the last Dracula died in the Middle Ages; however, he is familiar with the vampire legend and cannot disprove it entirely. He suggests that Frank and Dr. Brewster remain on high alert while Alucard is in town.
Meanwhile, Count Alucard arrives unobtrusively at Dark Oaks. It is then that we realize Kay's and Alucard's intentions were much more serious than anyone realized. Kay craves eternal life and Alucard desires the blood of a fresh, new, virile race in lieu of the stale old blood of Romanian natives. In a hush-hush midnight civil ceremony, they are married and Alucard becomes the new master of Dark Oaks.
Soon after, Frank arrives at Dark Oaks to make a final plea to Kay to give up her obsession with Alucard, but winds up inadvertently shooting her. He flees Dark Oaks in a panic and arrives at Dr. Brewster's doorstep, frozen in shock and babbling with a lunatic's gaze about how he just killed Kay. Dr. Brewster goes to Dark Oaks to see what went down only to find Kay sitting up in bed, alive as ever. But when Brewster returns home, he discovers that Frank has left for the plantation again with a team of police and detectives in tow. This time around, Kay is found lying dead in a coffin (it's now morning, after all). Frank is promptly arrested, causing Brewster to make a frantic phone call back to Dr. Lazlo, inviting him to the States to further investigate Count Alucard and his strange motives.
While in jail, Frank receives a nocturnal visit from the supposedly dead Kay. Now he really thinks he's lost his mind. Kay explains that she is immortal and that she wants Frank to join her. She plots to get him out of jail if he promises to destroy Alucard. In return, he will be rewarded with eternal life. Will Frank take her up on her offer to spend eternity by her side or will he feel compelled to fight the moral urges trying to convince him of Kay's evil intentions?
Son of Dracula was somewhat of a letdown. The incomparable Lon Chaney, Jr. is always great, but he suffers from lack of screen time. Alucard is mostly makes appearances as a bat on a string or is glimpsed briefly visiting various characters amid a wispy cloud of vapor. Alucard's motivations for moving to the Southern U.S. were understandable I suppose, but did he really need to marry Kay just to prey on the locals? And truthfully, Lon Chaney, with his bulky build and pencil-thin John Waters moustache, just didn't look good as a vampire.
Characters were likeable enough, but poorly developed. Familiar Universal Horror actress Evelyn Ankers (re-teaming with her Wolf Man costar Chaney) is wasted as Kay's sister Claire - she doesn't get to do much except act worried. Likewise, Professor Lazlo (who, incidentally, is the spitting image of Raymond Burr in Rear Window) flashes a crucifix to ward off Alucard and instantly we are supposed to elevate him to Van Helsing-like status. And I still don't understand Kay's intense longing for the vampire life. She had a great home, close-knit family, good friends and an adoring fiancé. Was it the classic story of the good girl falling for the bad boy? Perhaps commitment-phobe Kay was afraid of marrying Frank and just decided to sow her wild oats. Either way, the only thing that saved this film for me was the much better second half plotting and creative and satisfying surprise ending.
Both Dracula's Daughter and Son of Dracula are presented in a full frame 1.33:1 transfer. Both films boast good transfers, although Dracula's Daughter is of a slightly lower quality. The black and white picture is rich and bright, but is a little fuzzy and grainy. Some scenes are slightly blurry. There are also some wavy lines present during darker, more poorly lit scenes.
Son of Dracula's image quality is better, but then the film is newer, relatively speaking. It has a good black and white picture with not nearly as much graininess. Sharpness and detail are very good.
As is to be expected, both films exhibit 2.0 mono audio tracks. And I do mean mono. It seemed as if the center channel was the only one working. The sound quality is unremarkable - it's really just amplified sound. Dialogue is somewhat difficult to hear at low volumes. The score wavers occasionally. There are some popping sounds that correspond with the scratches present in the film, but they are not excessive and the audio is otherwise clear.
Both movies contain original theatrical trailers, as well as their respective production notes and cast and filmmaker bios. These supplements are fine, but for a $29.95 price tag and the plethora of moviemaking contributions that encompass Universal's history, I expect at least one documentary or featurette. I see short vignettes about the Universal monsters and associated actors, directors, producers and screenwriters almost weekly on channels as varied as American Movie Classics, the Sci-Fi Channel and E! Entertainment Television. Something along those lines would have complemented this double feature release nicely.
Also included with each movie is one of my personal pet peeves: studio propaganda. Billed along with the rest of the supplements are recommendations listing Universal's other double feature DVD releases and a website link to receive a newsletter informing viewers of upcoming Universal releases. I have nothing against promotional material per se - just don't list it under "bonus materials."
Both Dracula's Daughter and Son of Dracula were interesting entries in Universal's vampire grouping. Despite their faults, the stories at least managed to hold my attention. I enjoyed the premise introduced by Dracula's Daughter, later to be used to different effect in Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, that vapirism can be treated as a medical affliction. The standout performances rendered by Gloria Holden, Irving Pichel, Brewster and Robert Paige should be also be commended.
So in this round of sibling rivalry, Dracula's daughter without a doubt comes out victorious. However, neither offspring can claim to have emerged from under their famous father's caped shadow. Daddy Dracula will always reign supreme.
Movie - B
Image Quality - C
Sound - C-
Son of Dracula
Movie - C
Image Quality - B-
Sound - C-
Supplements - C
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