The Female of the Species is More Deadly Than the Male (Part I)

Classic horror movies are not known, in general, for setting the gold standard when it comes to representation. From Scream (1996) to Cabin in the Woods (2011), a whole sub-genre has grown around poking fun at the unwritten rules: women can’t seem to run very far before falling over, characters who aren’t white aren’t around long, promiscuous sex is a bad idea and (conversely) virgins seem to live longest. 

These conventions aren’t new; the “final girl” – an earnest, innocent and ultimately resourceful heroine who lives to tell the tale – found her heyday in 70s movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Black Christmas (both 1974). She, in turn, was presaged by the “scream queen,” a hapless female victim in countless movies but perhaps most famously King Kong (1933), who seemed to exist almost solely to raise the stakes for male heroes and villains. But for a short season this October, the Prince Charles Cinema (a mecca for Independent film in London’s West End) is putting the spotlight on the women of gothic horror who break those rules. Curated by Sophie Determan of the National School of Film and Television, four films from 1936 to 1971 show us female villains who are trapped, tortured and often hated, not by men but by themselves for their deadly potential.

Graphics made by  Sabrina Ooi.

Dracula’s Daughter stands out from the rest of the season in a few ways. For one, its the oldest selection by a decade. It’s also likely to have occupied a different place in the mind and ambition of its producers. I ask the man a few chairs over why he’s come to see the film; he says he loves the low-budget creativity of Hammer Horror – a production company often forced, for example, to explore unusual camera techniques simply to mask the fact that several movies might reuse the same set. So I can imagine his face dropping when Determan tells the audience Dracula’s Daughter is partly remembered is for its ‘lavishly expensive’ production. 

This much is immediately clear: we pick up immediately from the Count’s death in Dracula (1931) and are whisked between stately homes and hidden layers, prisons, Scotland Yard and a full operating theatre, all before an inexorable return to Transylvania. It’s an immensely captivating visual spectacle and more than just a way to throw money at the successful continuation of a franchise. Countess Marya Zaleska (played by Gloria Holden) drives the film and its restless transportation – a fitting representation of her search to know herself and find a cure for her inherited blood-lust. Throughout, all the countess wants is to be ‘free to live as a woman […] a normal’. Like Hamlet (a play the team of writers reference more than once) the answer lies, inevitably, at home; it’s just a shame the local villagers aren’t as thrilled by the Countess’ voyage of self-discovery when they see her back in the castle.

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So no need to paper over holes in the budget. Watching it, however, there is the sense that Dracula’s Daughter has found a different way to be creative with limited materials. All the budget in the world could not be expected to produce a 1936 film without its share of misogyny – it’s an obvious point and is, I think, the wrong thing to look for in Determan’s season. There are jokes about ‘ordinary secretaries’ being useless, women liking mirrors, the male lead (a psychiatrist played by Otto Kruger) enjoying ‘good hunting’ among the women he pursues. It’s a film that pits this bantering masculinity (and its brother: scientific scepticism) against a dangerously unstable – and often described as ‘unnatural’ – femininity; it’s also a film that shows us the inadequacies of the very same men.

There’s a recurring joke that Dr. Jeffrey Garth (Kruger) for all his suave charm, cannot tie a bowtie; a room full of Royal Society surgeons puzzle hopelessly over ‘two dark punctures’; the audience laughs when Garth jokes about women and their mirrors because he is standing in a vampire’s apartment wondering why there aren’t any. For him – every part the detective, doctor and model of male understanding – the penny drops ever so slowly. As an audience, we enjoy a specific species of dramatic irony uniquely enabled by the sequel dynamic. Garth thinks he is hunting, but we know he is hunted.

It’s not the only way Dracula’s Daughter takes advantage of the cultural expectations of its time. Introducing the film, Determan shares that Gloria Holden took the role of Dracula’s Daughter begrudgingly for fear of being typecast. At a time when the silver screen cult of stardom was really getting into full swing (think Grand Hotel just the year before), Holden’s seething performance of self-loathing is a real point of difference – fuelled, Determan suggests, by the actor’s actual disdain for the part. 

We’re left watching a very dark film which nonetheless takes an opportunistic creativity to its production constraints: not of budget but the social complexes of stardom and gender as they existed in the 1930s. Dracula’s Daughter holds the power to be more than what it seems – and it’s suffused with images which suggest as much, from the Countess’ hypnotic ring to her own distorted longing for absolution. Perhaps the same decision-making led the marketing team to lean into suggestions of lesbian romance between the Countess and Janet Blake (whom she actually abducts in order to manipulate Janet’s boss), played by Marguerite Churchill. It doesn’t feel to me like a particularly empowering moment when Countess Zaleska – having already abducted a young woman from the streets of London – leans over an unconscious Blake, but it’s indicative of the malleability inherent in this film.

To my mind, Dracula’s Daughter more than earns the benefit of the doubt. At its centre, Gloria Holden delivers a torturously moving depiction of entrapment. Crucially, she’s not trapped by a raging gorilla and she doesn’t muddle through by the power of virginity alone. She is trapped by herself and her own (ancestral) identity, which she confronts and takes full grasp of. But just in case you weren’t convinced, it’s the perfect film to watch with an audience – to titter at incompetent policemen and comically ghoulish henchmen. Live at the Prince Charles, and with Determan’s help, Dracula’s Daughter presents its most generous face: moving, articulate and genuinely ahead of the mark.