Monday, May 30, 2011

Dracula's Daughter Goes Both Ways

I first saw Dracula's Daughter (1936) on television at age twelve, when it made almost no impression on me. It seemed to me stilted and boring. In the years since, I felt as if I saw it many times, because it was always being talked about in horror circles as an example of the homoerotic strain in horror movies. Specifically, it was supposed to be a classic of lesbian cinema. But I never actually saw Dracula's Daughter for a second time until this morning, on Netflix instant viewing, and I was surprised to find that both my previous impressions were wrong. It is not boring, and it is not lesbian. It is lively and bisexual.

First, the liveliness. Dracula's Daughter is well-staged and moves right along, picking up where its predecessor Dracula left off and taking the story in a decidedly new direction. It tells the tale of Dracula's daughter, Countess Zaleska (Gloria Holden), who is also a vampire but aches not to be one. This is an adult story-line, one in which vampirism is like an addiction that the vampire longs to resist, and perhaps at the age of twelve I was not ready to appreciate such a conflict. Holden's performance is strong, as is Otto Kruger's performance as her psychiatrist, Dr. Garth. Yes, this is the first movie I know of in which a vampire has a psychiatrist. The movie is not very scary, but it is creepy and interesting, with good comic relief.

Second, the bisexuality. Much has been made of a sequence in which Countess Zaleska, who is a painter, has her henchman Sandor bring a pretty young woman, Lili, to her studio to pose for her semi-clothed. Zaleska tries to resist the temptation to sink her teeth into Lili's neck, but temptation proves too strong and Zaleska digs in, ultimately killing her. David J. Skal in his book, The Monster Show, notes that this scene is "often cited as a 'classic' lesbian sequence," and taken in isolation, it is.

But Zaleska does not like only women. Her first onscreen victim is a man, and--once she realizes the futility of giving up vampirism--she tries to persuade the male Dr. Garth into joining her forever in the ranks of the undead. Further, she lives with a man--the henchman Sandor--and had previously promised him immortality. Sandor does not like it when Garth displaces him in Zaleska's affections. The movie comes down to being a weird love triangle about two men and a woman, not about two women and another woman.

Thus, as far as her explicit sexual orientation goes, Zaleska prefers men. As far as her taste in food goes, she goes both ways: she will dine from the necks of both men and women. There is a long tradition of viewing vampire attacks as sexual as well as gastronomic acts, and this view is justified, if only because the neck is a sweet spot sexually. In that sense, the moment Zaleska preys on Lili, she is implicitly stating a sexual taste for women as well as men. But since her taste for men is also present, and (at least explicitly) stronger, Zaleska is best considered not lesbian but bisexual.

George Ochoa
Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films


Jon T said...

I haven't seen this but it sounds very interesting. I understand this was one of the last horror films Universal produced before a two year horror production hiatus in the late 1930s, and was pretty much savaged in the script stages by the Production Code. All the more remarkable that the bisexual subtext remains.

George Ochoa said...

Yes, that's true. David J. Skal in the book THE MONSTER SHOW gives an account of some of the script changes required by the Production Code Administration--including prohibiting Countess Zaleska's model Lili from posing nude.