An Alternate History of Horror: Dracula’s Daughter

En route to the screen, this sequel went through a few different permutations under key figures in the genre's history

Making movies is an expensive, time consuming business that requires a lot of people to all get on the same page and stay there. This means that there are a whole lot more ideas developed – good or bad – and screenplays written than ever actually make it to theaters or home video. In this series, I’m going to take a look at a few horror movies that never quite made it in front of the cameras, or that ended up reaching us in radically different forms than what was originally intended.

Previously in this series:

The Wolf Man vs. Dracula

Day of the Dead

Mario Bava’s “The Dunwich Horror”

The scene around which so much of the film's reputation is centered

The scene around which so much of the film’s reputation is centered

Dracula’s Daughter (1936) was the last horror movie produced under the Laemmle regime at Universal, and as such basically represents the end of the golden age of Hollywood horror. While it is generally a well-regarded film, it falls far short of the best of its era, and pales in comparison to the previous year’s highlights: The Bride of Frankenstein, The Black Cat, and Werewolf of London. What reputation it has is largely based on the then-fresh approach of making its monster reluctant in her evil and in search of a cure, and on the interpretation of one fairly brief and by modern standards entirely innocuous scene with slight lesbian implications.

But the five years that elapsed between Dracula and Dracula’s Daughter saw the project developed in a few different directions before eventually ending up with Garrett Fort’s well-conceived but uneven script and Lambert Hillyer’s workmanlike direction. Much of this work survives, and was published by archivist Philip J. Riley.

The first writer approached to develop Dracula’s Daughter was John L. Balderston, who had written the American version of Hamilton Deane’s stage adaptation of Dracula. It was Balderston’s script that served as the basis for Universal’s Dracula, for which Fort wrote the final screenplay. Balderston had also written treatments for Frankenstein and The Mummy, though in both cases other writers carried the projects to fruition.

John L. Balderston

John L. Balderston

Balderston wrote a lengthy treatment for Dracula’s Daughter, which picked up directly from the end of the previous film and brought back much of its cast: Van Helsing, Dr. Seward, Jonathan Harker and Mina. The action carries Van Helsing and Seward to Transylvania, where we are introduced to the Countess Szekeley – Dracula’s Daughter – who flees the Castle Dracula just in time to escape the pair of vampire-slaying doctors, who dispatch Dracula’s brides.

Szekeley then arrives in London, where she ensnares the story’s male lead, Lord Ned Wadhurst. As Wadhurst falls under the Countess’s influence, he and his fiancée, Helen, seek the aid of the heroes of the previous movie. Van Helsing exploits the thrall in which the Countess holds Ned, using him to track the vampire. Eventually, the team (also including American Chester Morris, modeled on the novel’s Quincy Morris) pursues the Countess back to Transylvania, where she is staked in her coffin.

In his notes accompanying the treatment, Balderston emphasized the need for a thrilling third act, as he felt that the finales of both Dracula and The Mummy were disappointing. Hence the international pursuit of the Countess, which takes its inspiration from the novel, but had not been a part of the fairly stagey original Universal picture.

Balderston also pushed very hard for the inclusion of more violent sadism than had been featured in prior golden age horror films. He felt that the fact that the monster in this case was a woman would make censors more forgiving, and that as long as her violence was directed against men they could get away with acts which would have been deemed too horrifying had they been the work of a male antagonist with female victims. Balderston focused on the Countess’s cruel mastery over her groveling male subjects, and made repeated reference to chains and implements of torture; one begins to get the feeling that this was more the wishful thinking of a frustrated fetishist than a reasoned opinion about what the censors would permit. He also included a version of the novel’s famous “baby in a bag” scene, which certainly would not have met with the approval of the Hays office.

With the violent and sadomasochistic extremes of the outline doomed by cultural standards, and the epic third act a wholly unrealistic expectation of Universal’s limited budgets, it is highly probable that Balderston’s treatment would have eventually been stripped of all of the elements that he was putting at its forefront, rendering it nothing but a direct re-make of the original film, with a simple bit of gender-swapping between monster and victim. It would, in essence, have ended up much like the finished film, but minus the important element of the Countess’s desire to escape her vampiric curse.

James Whale

James Whale

Universal’s hope was that Dracula’s Daughter would be helmed by the studio’s star director, James Whale. Whale had found success at Universal in several genres, but he is best remembered today for his stunning quartet of horror pictures: Frankenstein (1931), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Whale is unique among genre directors in that literally every horror movie he made stands as a beloved classic; not one of the four is anything less than great. It is generally assumed, therefore, that his Dracula’s Daughter would have been another horror masterpiece, as opposed to the competent second-tier work which eventually made it to the screen.

Whale developed the script with screenwriter R.C. Sherriff, who had written the screenplay for The Invisible Man and contributed to The Bride of Frankenstein (as well as writing the play Journey’s End, the screen adaptation of which had been Whale’s first film). Like Balderson, Whale and Sherriff sought a more epic scope than Dracula had provided, included more brutality than was expected in a horror film at the time, and put an emphasis on the domination of the Countess (here renamed Szelenski) over her male victims, though the sadomasochistic extremes of Balderston’s treatment were abandoned.

Because it was expected that Bela Lugosi would return for this film, the Sherriff script includes a lengthy prologue which tells the origin of Dracula and the woman who becomes his figurative daughter. The sadism of Dracula and his fellow aristocrats is the focus of this sequence, with village girls kidnapped for their amusement, molten lead poured on rebelling peasants, and – in a truly shocking moment – Dracula tormenting his daughter-to-be with the severed arm of her husband. A first round of censor notes required that this section be altered so that Dracula is already a vampire when committing these acts; the idea of a human being doing these things was far beyond the limits of what the Hays office would permit.

Jumping forward to modern times, we next meet a group of travelers who are passing through the region of Castle Dracula. The quartet consists of best friends John and David, and their respective sisters; John is engaged to David’s sister, Helen, while David is engaged to John’s sister, Joan. However, depending upon one’s interpretation of the script, it might seem that John and David are more interested in one another than in their respective fiancées. The two men go to explore the ruins of the castle, where they encounter various forms of haunting. Eventually, John encounters the Countess, while David is hurled into a state of temporary madness.

David is found by the locals, but John disappears. During David’s recovery, he is visited by Professor Van Helsing, who suspects the true reason for John’s disappearance, and vows to try to help however he can.

Back in London, the Countess establishes herself in high society, keeping John as her primary companion but drawing in other men to feed upon and throw away. Eventually, Helen spots the couple at a nightclub, and so, with Van Helsing’s aid, the friends seek to save John from the Countess’s clutches. When the Countess and David attempt to return to Transylvania by boat, the heroes book passage as well, and eventually succeed in destroying her and saving John.

Though Whale was a gifted horror director, it was not his genre of choice, and he was reportedly very reluctant about making Dracula’s Daughter. To this end, he made sure that the first script draft submitted to the Hays office would be overflowing with objectionable content; the brutality, the unwholesome implications of the Countess’s relationship with her victims, and the allusions to a homosexual relationship between David and John were all emphasized so that the script would have to be re-worked extensively, thus delaying the production so that Whale could get on with projects he cared more about.

Had Whale – or anyone else – ended up directing from this script, all of those extremes would certainly have gone missing. And what would have remained? Basically, another gender-swapped remake of Dracula, and a rather poorly structured one at that. The prologue serves no narrative purpose beyond giving an unnecessary backstory to the Countess, and is really just there to give Dracula himself some screen time despite his having been killed in the previous entry. John’s relationship with the Countess is underdeveloped, the London scenes are perfunctory, and the sequence aboard the boat is over-long and full of pointless stalling.

Whale would probably have brought his usual dynamic visual and editorial approach, but his masterful technique was only half of the reason for the success of his previous monster movies; the other part of the equation was his sympathy for outsiders and eccentrics, and the Sherriff script, with its minimal attention to the character of the countess, offers no room for Whale to play to this strength. Ironically, the final Garrett Fort screenplay – with its focus on the Countess Zeleska’s (as the character was finally named) plight – would have been far more suited to Whale’s directorial approach than was the Sherriff script which the director himself oversaw.

Had the Balderston treatment reached the screen, it would have been much like the final film, but minus the one truly unique story point. Had Whale’s version been made, it would have been more stylistically sophisticated than Hillyer’s work, and the presence of Lugosi as Dracula would have been welcome, but the story’s second half would have been too hollow and by-the-numbers for the movie to stand up alongside the director’s earlier contributions to the genre. It would be unfortunate if Whale’s winning streak as a horror director had been marred by a sub-par entry.

Countess and Sandor

Irving Pichel as Sandor and Gloria Holden as Countess Zaleska

In the end, the dull bits of Dracula’s Daughter – mostly any scenes involving the male lead, played by a dreadfully miscast Otto Krueger – are not enough to outweigh the strength of Countess Zaleska’s storyline and the excellent performances given by Gloria Holden as the Countess and Irving Pichel as Sandor, the servant who serves as the devil on her shoulder.

Although a Whale-directed version of the Fort screenplay might have been the best of all possible worlds, there was never a point where that option was on the table. In terms of what actually might have come to pass, in the end, the Dracula’s Daughter that we got was quite likely the best way things could have ended up.


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