Dracula’s Daughter (Lambert Hillyer, USA, 1936) is usually cited as an early—albeit heavily coded—depiction of lesbianism in American cinema, and the striking, rather handsome Gloria Holden’s vampiric seduction of the tremulous Nan Grey certainly has a certain sexual charge and narrative prominence that is matched by nothing else in the film. As if to underline the point, the tagline of the film, emblazoned across all original posters for the film, provocatively screams “she gives you that WEIRD FEELING” while others promise that “she’s more sensational than her unforgettable father!”
And in a sense, I agree. As I’ve written elsewhere, one of my main critiques of the Dracula mythology, first in Bram Stoker’s infamous novel and then the film variations that followed, is that it becomes a point of closure for the rich homoerotic undertones that had imbued earlier vampire lore (I’m thinking in particular of the lesbianism of Sheridan le Fanu’s Carmilla and, even earlier, Polidori’s undoubtedly queer The Vampyre). What Stoker instituted instead, as I wrote, “establish[ed] precedents that are comparatively dull in their clean, unambiguous delineations (undead=evil, strict heterosexuality, etc).” As such, Dracula’s Daughter serves a step away from Stoker and back towards the sexually ambiguous possibilities hinted out by le Fanu and others. At least in theory.
But whether or not one cares to interpret it as a cinematic site of coded lesbian desire, it’s unfortunately just about the only thing to recommend the film—the rest of the narrative is rather tired and lackluster (and clocking in at barely 70 minutes, still manages to be feel both padded and extremely rushed). Opportunities for moments of genuine eeriness and fright appear frequently but are generally squandered. Frankly, the film doesn’t deserve Holden, whose patrician presence allows her to kind of cut through the rest of the film like some kind of knife, imperiously slicing through the bumbling stock characters and rote plot points surrounding her.
[These and many more striking poster images for this film can be found here.]
I’ve realized recently that sometimes the value of watching so-called “canonical” films has less to do with watching a great film than the exhilaration of witnessing seeds be planted that will only fully flower in later, sometimes much better films. Or at least that was how I felt while watching both Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, Germany, 1920) and Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, Germany, 1922) in quick succession, neither which are particularly great shakes as modern movie experiences. But both were and continue to remain important films simply because in them one sees some of the great, enduring images and myths of cinema tentatively but decisively taking shape as the flickering, soundless images of each film unspools. Of the two I would probably call Caligari the “better” film, if only for the angular, now-iconic labyrinth of German Expressionism the film’s creaky plot loses itself in, and also because I was shocked to find how the unexpected “twist” ending managed to throw this supposedly “sophisticated” modern viewer for a complete loop, forcing an immediate reevaluation of what I had written off as a largely inconsequential plot. Murnau’s shameless and wholesale appropriation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula unfortunately and rather unfairly suffered severely in comparison to Dreyer’s Vampyr which I fell in love with last year—Murnau’s reputation had led me to expect more poetry, and alas there was very little to be found among the extremely broad characterizations and rather perfunctory ticking-off of the plot (there are a few dazzling moments however—the macabre beauty of the procession of coffins being slowly carried through the street of the plagued city sent a shiver down my spine). But what is great, what is still so very important about both of these films is of course its “monsters,” the horrible, the pitiful Cesare and Nosferatu respectively. Young Conrad Veidt’s Cesare, all long, lithe lines of the male body clad in black and shadows, who despite being in a somnambulistic state stalks his victims with a breathtaking, ballet-like grace, is revealed to be less a monster than a victim in sad-clown makeup; despite the misshapen, practically mummified body that seems to render him staid and encumbered, I was shocked how the stasis of Max Shreck’s Nosferatu made him shockingly elegant, his sinuous claws slowly unfurling with the languid grace of a sea anemone in water. Today neither of these iconic screen phantoms are frightening per se, but ensconced in their silent, flickery cinematic states, they remain deeply, almost indescribably eerie, even uncanny, their influence undeniably continues to drip quietly, unceasingly into the modern consciousness…