Saturday, October 27, 1973 (Midnight): Dracula’s Daughter / (1936) / Captive Wild Woman / (1943)

Synopsis: Two bumbling policemen discover a pair of murder victims at Carfax Abbey. One is Count Dracula’s old minion Renfield. The other is Dracula himself, lying in a wooden box with a stake driven through his heart. The only other person around is Professor Von Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) who freely admits to killing the Count. The police, thinking he is mad, arrest him.

Sir Basil Humphrey (Gilbert Emery), the head of Scotland Yard, tells Von Helsing that he’ll need a brilliant defense attorney to get him out of this mess. But Von Helsing is only interested in contacting psychologist Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger), whom he feels is the only person who will truly believe his story.

Meanwhile, the body of Dracula is locked in a back room at the police station. A mysterious woman appears, hypnotizing the cop on duty and spiriting the body away.

This strange woman is, as the title suggests, Dracula’s daughter (Gloria Holden). Aided by her servant Sandor (Irving Pichel), she burns her father’s body and carries out a strange ritual.

With her father dead, she has purged herself of the vampire’s curse, and can now go on living as a normal woman.

Or so she believes. Just as Sandor predicts, she still dreads the light of the sun and still craves the blood of fresh victims each night.

The first victim is a young man out on the town. His murder baffles the police, and Von Helsing as well, since he is convinced that Dracula is the only one who could have perpetrated such a crime.

Insinuating herself into London society as Countess Marya Zaleska, Dracula’s daughter meets Jeffrey Garth, who claims to be able to cure people of deep-seated obsessions. She wishes to meet him alone to discuss her own peculiar problem. The two are clearly drawn to each other, and Garth agrees to her request, much to the consternation of his secretary / love interest Janet (Marguerite Churchill).

But in the meantime her longing for blood becomes too strong, and she brings home a young woman named Lili (Nan Grey) with an offer of a modeling job. Soon Lili’s body is found on the street, drained of blood and near death.

Because Lili appears to be in some sort of trance, Jeffrey Garth is brought in to consult. Garth manages to break the hypnotic block and finds out where the woman had been attacked. He’s astonished to discover that it was a studio over a bookshop in Chelsea — which is exactly where Countess Zaleska lives….

Comments: I’ve always loved the deliciously spooky films of Val Lewton, who directed the ultra-stylish Cat People (1942) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943). The atmospheric Dracula’s Daughter, while not up to the level of a Lewton film, builds a similarly brooding mise-en-scene, a self-contained world of fog and shadows. So it’s a bit surprising to learn that this film was directed by Lambert Hillyer, who spent his career grinding out undistinguished westerns and serials.

Dracula’s Daughter is usually remembered today for its lesbian subtext, particularly a scene in which Countess Zaleska hires a young woman to model for her, plies her with wine, asks her to undress, then hypnotizes her in preparation for a nice bite on the neck.

While film-studies types sometimes reach a bit too far to claim gay or lesbian themes in old movies, it’s pretty blatant in Dracula’s Daughter, surprisingly so for a film released in 1936. The scene in question clearly inspired a similar moment in The Hunger (1983) in which vampire Catherine Deneuve seduces Susan Sarandon over a glass of wine.

But in an apparent effort to throw the censors off the trail, screenwriter Garrett Fort dangles a hint of romantic attraction between Countess Zaleska and Jeffrey Garth, igniting the jealousy of Sandor, whom (we are told) had previously been promised eternal life by the Countess. This love triangle weakens the metaphor of vampirism-as-homosexuality, the dark secret that Countess Zaleska finds deeply shameful and seeks to be “cured” of.

Of course, the fact that the Countess wants to be “cured” at all chips away at her power as a character, because she turns to others for direction and comfort. Sandor and Garth are more active agents in the film than she is, and that’s a great pity.

Liz Kingsley, in her masterful analysis of the film, suggests that Countess Zaleska might not be a vampire at all, but simply a delusional woman who has convinced others that she is one of the living dead. This seems a bit highbrow and psychological for the 1930s, but it’s interesting that we don’t see anything resembling supernatural powers in Countess Zaleska. She never turns into a bat or disappears in a puff of smoke. And if she was truly made a vampire by Count Dracula, why wasn’t she freed from the curse when he was destroyed?

But no matter how you interpret the character, the choice of Gloria Holden for the title role was inspired. She has a strange, regal sort of beauty, and maintains a slightly unnatural bearing throughout — you never see her blink, for example — and the scenes where she hypnotizes her victims are particularly effective.

Irving Pichel is effective too as the unnerving Sandor. Pichel had a middling career in character parts, finding greater success later as a producer and director.

Otto Kruger actually got top billing in this movie, though he is not particularly notable as Garth. Nan Grey does a good job conveying vulnerability as the down-on-her-luck Lili, and it’s good to see Edward Van Sloan reprise his role from Dracula (1931), though oddly enough he now has the name “Von Helsing”. The screenwriter apparently forgot his name was Van Helsing in the previous film, and no one seemed to notice.

Captive Wild Woman

Synopsis: Fred Mason (Milburn Stone) returns from a two-year trip to Africa, where he has been gathering wild animals for the Whipple Circus. He is particularly proud of a gorilla he’s captured named Cheela, whom he has taught a number of tricks on the long sea voyage home.

His girlfriend Beth Colman (Evelyn Ankers) is glad to see him, but she reveals some developments that she hasn’t shared via letter since Fred went on his journey. Beth’s sister Dorothy (Martha Vickers) has been deeply troubled, and her doctors have concluded that her problems are glandular in nature. She took Dorothy to see Dr. Sigmund Walters (John Carradine), an expert on glandular problems, and Dorothy is now hospitalized at his sanitorium. She also shares that Dr. Walters has shown a keen interest in Beth, and has taken her to dinner several times.

Perhaps looking to size up the competition, Mason goes with Beth and meets Dr. Walters, inviting him on a behind-the-scenes look at the circus. Walters is deeply impressed with Cheela and asks off-handedly if Whipple would ever sell a beast like that. He’s told that the circus would never sell at any price.

Feeling that Cheela is necessary for the experiment he wants to try, Walters secretly meets with a fired worker from the circus, offering him money to help him steal Cheela. Once he has the gorilla in his possession, he murders his nurse, Miss Strand (Fay Helm) and uses her cerebrum on the gorilla to augment its intelligence, then injects it with Dorothy’s glandular secretions.

This presumably violates all the standard laws of God and man; nevertheless the procedure is successful. Cheela is transformed from a hairy gorilla to a beautiful woman (Acquanetta). Walters gives her the name Paula Dupree and takes her to the circus, where she seems to have a hypnotic effect on the animals. As long as she is close by, the animals are easy for Mason to control.

It soon becomes clear that Paula has fallen in love with Mason. But what simian savagery will be released when she discovers that he loves Beth?

Comments: This Ben Pivar production is interesting for a number of reasons, mainly because of the clever way it uses extensive footage from a completely different movie. All of the circus animals we see are from a 1933 film called The Big Cage, featuring famed animal trainer Clyde Beatty. Most of the scenes in Captive Wild Woman are built around this archival footage.

In fact, a good third of this film’s 60-minute running time is from The Big Cage, so Captive Wild Woman must have been a bargain for the studio. They didn’t spend a lot of money on the cast, anyway. Milburn Stone, a lackluster contract player at Universal who was usually cast as the lawyer or the family friend, was evidently chosen to play Mason because his wavy black hair resembles that of Clyde Beatty. With matching costumes it was fairly simple for Edward Dmytryk to show Beatty in long shots and reverse angles, and Stone in closeups. Through clever editing, most people in the audience probably were never aware of the recycling job. It’s a bit of stretch to imagine Evelyn Ankers waiting around for Milburn Stone for two years, but it works for the purposes of this movie.

Stone doesn’t get top billing in this picture, though: that honor goes to horse-faced ham John Carradine. In spite of this being his first starring role, Carradine’s performance was already tiresome. Will this guy ever stop ranting about glandular secretions? And scientists of the 1940s, please stop trying to turn gorillas into human beings, especially since you don’t seem to have any point in doing it.

Even allowing for the slipshod science, it’s not clear how or why Cheela the gorilla (played by Ray “Crash” Corrigan and his trusty gorilla suit) would turn suddenly into Acquanetta. Fortunately, the Venezuelan Volcano doesn’t speak, automatically making this her best screen performance. The whole movie is quite silly, even by the gland-happy standards of 1940s horror cinema.

I do want to address one element of the film that really bothered me, and that I would hope many others would find disturbing today as well. The scenes of animals being mistreated probably didn’t bother very many people, once upon a time. But the world has changed a lot since this movie was released in 1943 (and indeed, since we saw it on Horror Incorporated in 1973).

By today’s standards the circus scenes are simply appalling: we see magnificent animals that don’t belong in captivity caged up and tormented for the amusement of spectators. Clyde Beatty cracks a whip and fires blank cartridges at animals that are obviously frightened and stressed, and at one point a tiger and a lion are made to fight one another on camera (the fight was real; the animals were forced into a cage together and the resulting fight was filmed, with one of the animals dying as a result of the staged altercation).

People can wax nostalgic about the past if they wish; there were certainly good things in the world that are now gone forever. But we tend to forget the thoughtless and cruel things that have gone by the wayside, and we should all be grateful that circuses and inhumane zoo exhibits have largely vanished.

And with that, my friends, I shall step off my soap box, doff my hat, and disappear into the night.

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