Dracula’s Daughter: An Underrated Film With Bite

Editor’s note: All throughout October, the vibes get spookier and the nights get longer. It’s the perfect time of year to watch horror movies, whether you’re a year-round horror fan or you just like to watch horror flicks to get into the Halloween spirit. This year at Horror Obsessive, for our 31 Horror Classics Revisited series, we’re giving you one recommendation for a classic horror film each day throughout the month of October. What do you think—is this film a horror classic? What other horror films do you consider to be classics, and what films do you make sure you watch each October? Let us know in the comments below!

Whether you’re a horror fan or run at the first sound of a creaking door, one thing you can’t escape is the ever-present joke about the umpteenth sequel to a horror movie being “Relative of [Insert Antagonist Here].” The titular “relative” is often a “bride” or a “son.” The Universal Monsters had their fair share: the Frankenstein series had both a bride (of the Frankenstein monster) and a son (of Dr. Frankenstein); Count Dracula had a “son” (who’s implied to actually be the Count himself)…and a daughter; and Dracula’s Daughter (1936), a direct sequel to Dracula (1931), subverts the “family tree” sequel title grammatical conventions, just as its star subverts monster movie conventions.

Before we get started, you can stream Dracula’s Daughter on Peacock Premium!

Given how many sub-par horror sequels exist, it would be easy to watch the classic first and skip the rest, but you’ll be missing hidden gems. One such gem is Bride of Frankenstein (1935), whose titular “relative” is so famous and well-regarded, she’s often included in the Universal Monster lineup. Her film is often considered to be on par with or, depending on whom you ask, even better than Frankenstein (1931). Both the character and the film would be a surprise to those who’ve only seen homages, references, and parodies. Dracula’s Daughter is another gem.

Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) gazes while holding a cloth over the lower half of her face, wearing a ring with a large jewel on it, in the film, "Dracula's Daughter" (1936).
A gem like that one on her ring…

Dracula’s Daughter is one of a long line of films I most likely either would’ve had a hard time finding or never would’ve seen at all without seeing it on Svengoolie’s show on MeTV. One of the great things about seeing films on shows hosted by horror movie hosts like Svengoolie is that, oftentimes, you’re watching for the host, regardless of what the film is: thus, you see a lot of films you may not have sought out or even heard of otherwise and can see many of these films that are new to you without hearing or reading people’s thoughts on or reviews of them beforehand. I got to see Dracula’s Daughter without knowing what the world thinks of the film. I was engaged throughout the film, was anxious to see what would happen next, and came away from it surprised that this character isn’t more well-known or marketed.

It’s a shame that, like the Bride of Frankenstein, Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) never got a sequel of her own and never got to join in on the many crossovers with other Universal Monsters, much less have her own reimagining/remake. But unlike the Bride of Frankenstein, the character of Dracula’s daughter also isn’t referenced, parodied, or paid tribute to nearly as often.

Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) reaches a hand out of her coffin, in the film, "Dracula's Daughter" (1936).
Even her own film pays tribute to her father’s…or maybe this is just a really cool and creepy shot.

Also unlike the Bride of Frankenstein, Countess Zaleska is not only an active character throughout her film but also the star.

We start the film immediately after Dracula’s ending. Jonathan and Mina have already left Dracula’s castle toward the sunrise of another day, but Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan)—renamed in this film as “Von Helsing”—sticks around, is caught by the police and is arrested for murder. Police don’t believe in vampires, after all.

Like many films of the era, Dracula’s Daughter’s running time is quite short, leaving little time for subplots or backstory. Instead, we get hints of things that may have happened, things that may be happening, and things that could happen. One example of the latter is that, after Von Helsing’s arrest, he’s mostly confined (pun intended) to discussing his defense with his former student, Dr. Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger). Von Helsing gets some wonderful dialogue and is clearly on board to fight the spread of Dracula’s vampirism. Given what we learn elsewhere at this point in the film, this plants the seeds of a potential complex dilemma or multilayered alliance between two characters that never quite comes to fruition.

Speaking of, meanwhile, we meet Countess Zaleska, determined to destroy her father’s legacy and hoping to purge herself of vampirism and live life as a human. She steals Dracula’s body from where the police are keeping it and decides to fight fire with fire.

Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) and Sandor (Irving Pichel) look on as a fire burns Count Dracula's body in a foggy night, in the film, "Dracula's Daughter" (1936).
Don’t accept a vampire’s invitation to a barbecue.

She seeks help from a psychiatrist…Dr. Garth, in fact, to see if she can rid herself of her vampirism once and for all. This begins an interesting story exploring the power of the mind. Some of the psychiatric ideas presented are very much outdated, but they do work for the film and the story being told.

In modern vampire media, it’s common to find vampires who don’t want to be vampires or, at least, don’t want to hurt anyone, and fight their eternal thirst with every passing mortal neck. This is one of the earliest film examples I’ve seen of this journey. Gloria Holden gives a great performance as Countess Zaleska. We don’t get to see her transform into other forms or even show fangs. (Dracula never showed fangs in his original film, either.) Thus, the film relies heavily on Holden’s performance. Her face shows us what we need to know about every scene she’s in. We see her unbreakable, intense gaze as she hypnotizes people. We see the struggle on her face as she fights her vampirism and its impulses. We see her intense desperation for joy, unsure if she can let her guard down. We see her despair when it’s all too much to fight…and her calm when she gives in to her thirst.

Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) is haunted by her struggle to play happy music instead of dark music on the piano while Sandor (Irving Pichel) watches, in the film, "Dracula's Daughter" (1936).
I’m guessing her piano recital didn’t go so well.

The unrelenting intensity of Holden’s performance gets a “hold on” (pun intended) your attention and never lets go. The scene in which Countess Zaleska plays piano while talking to Sandor (Irving Pichel) doesn’t even show her hands playing the piano: the focus is on their faces, their performances, and the music as it gradually changes. Holden’s insistence up against Pichel’s calm, smug cynicism shifting gradually into her desperation against his firmness creates a scene you won’t soon forget. The scene with Countess Zaleska and Lili (Nan Grey) doesn’t involve any transformations (bat or otherwise), absent mirror reflections, or any other “tricks” or effects besides a shining light. But Holden’s performance makes it gripping, tense, and even chilling to watch.

Although the short running time doesn’t allow much in the way of subplots or backstory, Zaleska is a fascinating enough character that the film leaves you wondering what else there is to her story. Lines about her mother singing her a song when she was a child bring up questions of if she was always a family member or, if not, how she became “Dracula’s daughter” (some of which possible backstories may have been too dark for a 1930s movie). Could she have overcome her vampirism through the power of her own mind, through another ritual like the one she conducted with her father’s body, or some combination of the two? Was Sandor correct in his constant reminders that she can never be free of vampirism, or was he manipulating her so she’d stay a vampire and turn him into one, as he says she promised him?

Sandor (Irving Pichel) stares, in the film, "Dracula's Daughter" (1936).
Or did he just want her shampoo?

The climax is also unconventional in several ways. The role Sandor takes brings another dimension to his character that “assistants” or other supporting characters don’t generally get. In some ways, the climactic scene with Countess Zaleska, Dr. Garth, and Janet Blake (Marguerite Churchill) plays like a typical “vampire movie” climax, but the fact that the vampire is a woman makes it unique for the time in that a woman has agency and even power in the proceedings. Holden’s performance also gives the proceedings an undeniable subtext that is just barely subtext.

Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) leans over a fainted Janet Blake (Marguerite Churchill), in the film, "Dracula's Daughter" (1936).
“I’ve one thing to say and that’s dammit, Janet…”

Dracula’s Daughter is rife with so much potential and it’s so easy to see what could have been in any sequels or crossovers involving her father’s return, further adventures with Van (or Von) Helsing, and so much more. However, all of this is true for many films of the era. Ultimately, what Dracula’s Daughter does give us is strong. The fact that “what could have been” is so clear proves just how strong it is. Amongst all the “brides of” and “sons of,” Dracula’s daughter deserves to stand next to them in the classic monster lineup and her own spot in your spooky movie lineup.


You might also enjoy:

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Written by Jamie Lee

Jamie Lee’s a writer, actor, singer, director, DJ (including hosting “Jammin’ with Jamie”), and more in film, theatre, and radio. Jamie Lee Cortese, despite loving horror and comedy and being an actor and writer, is also not Jamie Lee Curtis, though she understands where you might get confused. Visit her website at or find her on Twitter @JackalopeJamie.

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