Saturday, April 22, 1978: Dracula’s Daughter (1936) / The Missing Guest (1938)

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: Falling in love with your employer is usually a bad idea, though it happens frequently enough in the movies and sometimes even in real life.  Pain and disaster is by far the most likely outcome of such dalliances but, as the ancient philosopher El Debarge once pointed out, the heart is not so smart.

Jeffrey Garth’s secretary Janet has long carried a torch for her boss in Dracula’s Daughter.  The fact that Garth is ignorant of this seems improbable, especially since Janet is played by the delectable Marguerite Churchill. 

But we shouldn’t be too surprised that he doesn’t notice: she is like the air Garth breathes, absolutely vital to him but too easily taken for granted.  So when he begins to fall for Countess Marya Zaleska, Janet does everything she can to derail their romance. Her machinations are fairly innocent, played for comic relief: she stands at the door and tells the countess that Jeffrey is out when he is really in, and makes prank calls to the Countess’ flat when she knows Garth is there with her.  

Her jealousy manifests itself in benign ways, presumably because her intentions are not entirely selfish – she sincerely wants to steer him away from a woman that she knows is bad news. Of course the screenwriters stack the deck heavily against the Countess, who winds up kidnapping Janet and holding her hostage in order to compel Garth’s promise of eternal companionship. 

This conveniently provides him with a reason to hold her in contempt as well as an opportunity to consider what Janet really means to him.  In the end Garth is able to hold the supine Janet in his arms and see her for what she is, namely, the Pepper Potts to his Tony Stark.

That employer-employee romance ends happily, but the other one in the movie doesn’t: Countess Zaleska’s relationship with her servant Sandor is anything but healthy.  Sandor clearly wants her to fail in her quest to become human again, and late in the film we find out why: the countess had at one point promised him eternal life and companionship.  How and why the countess became involved with her creepy troll of a manservant is never explained, but it’s clear that whatever relationship they once shared has curdled.  He still craves the nocturnal lifestyle that she no longer wants.  

She is like a teenager who realizes she doesn’t want to run with the goth kids anymore.  She has outgrown Sandor and now expects him to go quietly back to the original role he played in her life: namely, a member of the household staff. This, of course, is doomed to fail, and in the end it’s Sandor who pierces her heart with an arrow, like a demented Cupid.  He Is gunned down seconds later, and this is probably how he would have preferred it anyway.  I suspect he always saw himself as Romeo to her Juliet.

The Missing Guest

Synopsis: Newspaper reporter “Scoop” Hanlon (Paul Kelly) has been in the doghouse with his editor, and as a result he’s been stuck writing for the women’s page, where he must endure the taunts and jibes of his (entirely male) colleagues. He gets a shot at redemption when he’s offered an unusual feature story: his boss wants him to spend a night in the notorious Blue Room at the Baldrich mansion on Long Island.

The room has been closed up since the murder of family patriarch Samuel Kirkland in the Blue Room 20 years ago — a murder that was never solved, since the room was locked from the inside. The family, according to the editor, is hosting a big celebration at the house tonight. If Scoop agrees to crash the party and find a way to spend the night in the Blue Room, he’ll get a fat bonus and will be placed back on regular assignment.

As it happens, the gathering that night at the Baldrich mansion is a costume party. A man in a ghost costume appears at the door; this turns out to be young Larry Deardon (William Lundigan), who scoffs at all the talk of supernatural events and asks young Stephanie Kirkland (Constance Moore) to dance. While dancing he broaches the topic of marriage, but she turns him down.

Outside the house, Hanlon is trying to find a way into the party, and is dismayed when he learns that all of the invited guests have already arrived. He is at a loss of how to get into the party when a car unexpectedly crashes into the front gate of the Baldrich mansion. The driver is knocked out.

Soon, Hanlon is brought in on the pretext that he is the driver who was injured in the crash. Stephanie finds his wallet that has fallen to the floor: it indicates that he is “Ronald Ranger, Psychic Researcher”. After a swig of brandy, he is revived and it is agreed that he should stay the night to recuperate.

But when he sees a ghost — or someone dressed like a ghost — in the window of the guest room, he takes its picture. This draws the attention of butler Edwards, who seizes his camera and discovers it has a name plate identifying it as property of Scoop’s newspaper, the Daily Blade. That gets him thrown out of the house.

Later that night, Larry declares that he will spend the night in the Blue Room in order to show everyone else there’s nothing to the old superstition.

The next morning, Scoop is found to have spent the night in the guest room — he bribed the family chauffeur to get in, he says — but comes under suspicion of murder when it’s revealed that Larry has vanished from the Blue Room — which, just like 20 years ago, was locked from the inside….

Comments: Universal’s second go at the Blue Room chestnut is a more lighthearted affair than 1932’s Secret of the Blue Room, but isn’t quite as silly as Murder in the Blue Room five years later. It’s a pretty weak entry as it suffers from an uncertainty in tone (the tip-off here can be found in the movie’s tagline, “Ghostly! Giggly! Grand!”), with the down-on-his-luck newspaper reporter pressed into service as protagonist, even though newspaper reporter protagonists with nicknames like “Scoop” or “Flash” had largely disappeared from the movies by this time.

The reporter and his comically demanding editor aren’t the only cliches trotted out for us in this one. We also get the old dark house and the red-herring butler and the beautiful heiress to the family fortune who just happens to have a weakness for down-on-his luck newspaper reporters. The whole movie is a fire sale of movie cliches, chucked into Universal’s blender and pureed within an inch of its life.

Horror as a genre had fallen out of favor by the time The Missing Guest was in production, and as you might expect the spooky stuff is just there for atmosphere; at heart this is just a standard murder mystery and not a very interesting one at that.

Paul Kelly’s character isn’t quite as hapless as the ones we’ve seen in Night of Terror or The Return of Dr. X but we’ve nevertheless seen his type a million times before: Scoop is cynical, streetwise, a bit rough around the edges but still a regular Joe who can see through the pompous affectations of the rich and powerful. Kelly plays him fairly well, clowning around until he’s called upon to be the smart, resourceful leading man.

I rather liked Constance Moore in this one; she’s best-remembered today for playing Wilma Deering in the 1939 Buck Rogers serial. To be honest, I can’t recall if I’ve seen it or not; these old serials never seemed to stick with me, and I tend to get Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon confused (they are, after all, both Universal serials, and both star Buster Crabbe).

William Lundigan had a durable career in both films and TV, and starred in the TV series Men Into Space (1959), which ran for a single season. It is difficult to find today, but is remembered as a fairly realistic drama about the early days of space flight. He appeared as a guest star in television dramas into the 1970s.

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