Essays, Gender, LGBTQ, Movies

The Life and Times of Marya Zaleska, Dracula’s Daughter: Part Three

Having discussed the 1936 film Dracula’s Daughter in the first and second posts in this series, I shall now conclude with a look at the film’s afterlife in adaptations and derivative works.

Dracula’s Daughter: The Novel

Dracula's Daughter novelThe novelisation of Dracula’s Daughter was published by Berkley Books in 1977. Its author was credited as Carl Dreadstone; when the novel was republished by Star Books in 1980, the name on the cover had curiously changed to E. K. Leyton. Both are pseudonyms, and the man behind the novel was in fact Ramsey Campbell.

Campbell would later establish a reputation as one of the most talented novelists in the field of horror. His Dracula’s Daughter novelisation is from an early stage of his career, but it nonetheless shows a flair for the gothic that is true to the spirit of the film while adding a few twists of its own. In adapting the film’s melodramatic scene in which Zaleska celebrates burning the corpse of Dracula, Campbell makes a conscious effort to give Zaleska’s character a new dimension by showing her through the eyes of the person most familiar with her, Sandor:

“She sounded almost like a young girl…almost, but her attempt at delighted simplicity reminded Sandor of the dreadful coyness of a senile woman pretending to be a child. ‘I can live a normal life,’ she cried, almost singing.”

Similarly, when describing of Zaleska’s artwork, Campbell uses the character of the psychiatrist Jeffrey to get under Zaleska’s skin:

“[T]he first painting showed a vague nude woman, either kneeling or crouched in the fetal position. Her flesh was faintly luminous, and her glow touched the gaping jaws of a skull that stood beside her, big as her entire body. Elsewhere the woman glowed amid huge, illegibly carved stones, or struggled to stand on the edge of a lightless gulf. Nowhere was her face visible.

[…]

Glancing about the gloomy studio, [Jeffrey] wondered whether this consciously contrived atmosphere, all masks and mystery and dimness, mightn’t be the key to her: an artist’s melodrama, nurtured to help her art. There was more to her obsession, some trauma involving a man, probably her father. No doubt most of her symbols—the flat like a tomb, the inscribed stones that hemmed in the luminous woman—referred to that influence.”

The book also takes the opportunity to flesh out the oddly undefined character of Sandor. It takes Sandor’s very absence of backstory as an essential character trait, establishing that the Countess has destroyed his memory: “He remembered little of himself except his name. She had drained his memories.  But in time memories could grow to be a burden. He was glad to be rid of them.”

Campbell also elaborates upon Sandor’s main motivation – his love for Zaleska – by giving him a clear libido. A scene created for the novel has Sandor approaching a London sex worker; she reacts with disgust at his proposition, which is left to the reader’s imagination. The novel uses this as a starting point to explore the relationship between Sandor and Zaleska:

“He’d demanded some outrageously unusual sensation. Occasionally Sandor wondered whether something of the kind bound him to his mistress. Once, soon after she’d made him the slave of her kiss and her ring, he’d caught her gazing speculatively at him. She might have been considering whether he could become her lover, to preserve the secret hoard of her humanity. But she’d glared at his passive eyes and had turned away, furious with herself.”

Campbell is fully aware of the lesbian subtext to the film; he briefly mentions it in the book’s introduction, which he wrote under his own name. That said, the novel’s version of the encounter between Zaleska and Lili (here spelled Lily) is relatively subtle in equating vampiric hunger with lesbian desire:

“When Lily ventured out, her fears seemed confirmed. The Countess hardly glanced at her; indeed, she paced away from her into the spreading shadows. Was she afraid to look? No, Lily knew it wasn’t that; the Countess was simply disappointed. She felt cold, not only because the fire was sinking; she felt rejected, unloved once again.

“Not at all sure that she wanted to—but unable to think of any other way to halt the Countess’s indifferent pacing—Lily touched her thin shoulder-straps and blurted, ‘Do you want me to pull these down?’

“The Countess turned, and as she did so a yearning glimmered in her eyes. At last she said, ‘Yes,’ and a suppressed emotion roughened her voice.”

The novel makes an effort to answer the film’s unresolved question as to how Zaleska is related to Dracula, showing that Campbell was keen to dig a little deeper into the workings of the vampire concept:

“‘There are legends about Dracula, and about the woman he sired.’ Van Helsing was still musing. ‘How can a vampire have a daughter? I thought they were only legends, but now I must begin to doubt. One says that her mother became Dracula’s victim while she was carrying the child, so that the child was born neither human nor vampire. There are other different tales…’”

Finally, when the novel reaches its climax and Janet is held captive by Zaleska, Campbell takes the story to macabre heights never reached by the film:

“Her terror must burst forth somehow; some part of her must move! But nothing did. Perhaps she fainted, for there was a jumble of nightmare impressions, real or imagined: the Countess climbing forth amid a rain of earth; a stale stench of mingled blood and soil; in the depths of the vault, the stirring of obscure forms that moved away into the further dark; the Countess’s fingers, leprous with earth, touching Janet’s face with a lover’s delicacy. That, at least, was abominably real.”

The reference to Zaleska’s fingers being “leprous with earth” is a fine example of how Campbell uses imagery of decay and death to describe Zaleska during the novel’s climax, in stark contrast with the cold but beautiful figure played by Gloria Holden. Here is another example:

“Her hungry mouth grinned, showing all its teeth, hang-jawed as only a corpse could be, and—with sly graciousness—she allowed her victim to lead her. After all, he was conducting them both into the dark. Jeffrey turned quickly to guide them beyond the bed, unaware that he was waltzing with a corpse.”

The film has a clean-cut ending, with the vampire destroyed and normalcy restored. While true to Stoker’s novel, this conclusion was perhaps a little too pat for a 1970s audience that had witnessed altogether darker endings in the likes of Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Omen (1976). Campbell chooses to close the novel on an ambiguous note, with the once happy-go-lucky Janet suffering the psychological aftereffects of being menaced by Zaleska:

“She remembered her vigil beside the coffin, the rising of the dead face, her own eagerness to rise from the pillow toward the corpse’s lips. Every pale glimmer in the shadows was the Countess’s face… Already she suspected that her fear was too secret ever to explain to Jeffrey. Her body trudged weak-kneed toward the vaults. However far she fled from them—even if the castle and everything about it were destroyed—there would always be some hidden darkness in her that was there.”

The Story Continues

The Devil's NightIn the later years of Universal’s horror cycle, the studio began to mix and match its monster characters in crossover films. Frankenstein met the Wolf Man in 1943; both of them went on to encounter Dracula in 1944; and the entire trio was dispatched by Abbott and Costello in 1948. But Dracula’s daughter was left out of these team-ups.

Until, that is, the turn of the millennium.

The 1990s saw the establishment of “Universal Studios Monsters” as a merchandising brand, complete with blood-splattered logo. The line of tie-ins eventually expanded to include a trilogy of novels; these continued the adventures of the cinematic monsters, picking up where the crossovers left off. The first was Jeff Rovin’s Return of the Wolf Man, published in 1998; this was followed by two sequels written by David Jacobs: The Devil’s Brood (2000) and The Devil’s Night (2001).

Absent in Return of the Wolf Man, Countess Zaleska makes her series debut in The Devil’s Brood. The book does not establish exactly how she was resurrected following her death in the film, but then, this is true to the later Universal Dracula movies, where the Count was regularly revived without explanation.

Jacobs returns to original screenwriter John L. Balderston’s conception of Zaleska as a sadist who enjoys tormenting her captives. She maintains a dungeon filled with “preferably young, healthy and attractive” prisoners, both male and female, whom she has obtained through a local ring of slave-traders. She runs an evil cult – implicitly the one from Universal’s The Black Cat (1934) – which is responsible for acts of “murder, betrayal, blasphemy, incest, rape, torture, necrophilia, necromancy, and evil in all its multiform guises.”

This incarnation of Zaleska is a half-bestial creature, catching flies with a snake-like tongue and shapeshifting into a monstrous woman-bat. Drinking blood physically rejuvenates her, like Dracula in the Bram Stoker novel: “Her face and body no longer resembled that of an ancient, sexless elf, but of a bewitching, alluring child-woman” (neither description, it has to be said, fits Gloria Holden). The hinges of her coffin, meanwhile, are greased with “that most diabolical of lubricants, the fat of babies.”

The motivation of her screen counterpart – a desire to be cured of vampirism – is given a single brief mention in The Devil’s Brood. Beyond this, she is portrayed simply as a megalomaniacal, mad scientist-like villain. She teams up with two other monsters – the Bride of Frankenstein and a werewolf descended from one of Universal’s lycanthropes – and implicates them in a scheme to conquer the world:

“‘It’s a schematic drawing, a diagram of the main operative circuit of the Moon-Ray, the key to building the projector! With it, and the race of super-slaves I can spawn from the newly reanimated Bride, the worlds of living dead will bow down before me, going under my heels.’”

So ends The Devil’s Brood. Zaleska gets little to do in The Devil’s Night, however; her plan to reanimate the Bride of Frankenstein is postponed until the very end of the novel, and shortly afterwards both monstrous women – along with Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster – are crushed by a collapsing laboratory.

Universal Monsters Online

Countess Zaleska in Universal Monsters Online from Bigpoint

Zaleska went on to appear as a playable character in Bigpoint’s Universal Monsters Online, a short-lived browser game that existed from 2012 to 2013. She was given a redesign by concept artist Christian MacNevin; with her petite, rounded features, this interpretation owes less to Gloria Holden and more to the bishoujo aesthetic of Japanese cartoons and video games.

Dracula’s Granddaughter: Nadja

Nadja

Elina Löwensohn as Nadja Dracula.

While the officially-sanctioned continuations of Zaleska’s story turned her alternately into a one-note supervillain and a cutified action heroine, writer-director Michael Almereyda took a very different approach with Nadja, his unofficial 1994 remake of Dracula’s Daughter. The film takes the rough plot outline of the original, places it in a modern setting, and filters the entire narrative through a heady arthouse aesthetic.

Nadja’s focus is soft, both literally (the image frequently fades into a haze of low-res pixelation) and figuratively, as it veers from postmodern experimental cinema to a more straightforward spoof b-movie. It is filmed in black and white, reaching a halfway point between 1930s Universal horror and 1990s heroin chic photography.

Marya Zaleska is reimagined as Nadja Dracula; played by Romanian-born actress Elina Löwensohn, she comes across as a Goth girl in Zaleska cosplay. Her companion Sandor – now named Renfield – is similarly depicted as a languid twentysomething emo. Peter Fonda’s Van Helsing also has his roots in youth subculture, albeit the subculture of an earlier generation. He is portrayed as a burnt-out 1960s rocker, whose descriptions of the supernatural world are half acid flashback, half music video pitch. Nevertheless, he possesses an energy and vitality missing from the morose vampire characters.

The film’s interpretation of the vampire theme is couched in conscious irony. The deceased Count Dracula is depicted as an incongruously old-fashioned Lugosi-type, first in flashbacks where he is portrayed by an actor in a black cape, and then as a Halloween decoration. Almereyda is clearly interested in vampirism as a symbol, although exactly what it symbolises varies from scene to scene.

The associations with drug culture are hard to miss, as the first line of dialogue has Nadja refer to “long nights without sleep, in which the brain lights up like a big city.” The film then offers an economic analogy, when Nadja states that her father’s wealth “goes way back – like all vast fortunes of this kind, it comes from the suffering and exploitations of the poor, the peasants, the workers.” Later, Almereyda makes the lesbian subtext of Dracula’s Daughter explicit by showing Nadja having sex with the character of Lucy (imported from Dracula); as Lucy is married to a male lead broadly analogous to Jeffrey Garth, this scene of adulterous homosexuality casts the vampire as a force that liberates women but damages the men around them.

When Lucy comes under the spell of vampirism, the results are directly compared to PMS; one of the film’s more broadly comedic scenes has the male characters expressing bewilderment at her sudden cravings for chocolate, which they can attribute only to devilry. Another humorous association is made when Van Helsing gives a description of Dracula that makes him sound like a past-his-prime rock star: “He was tired, lost, he was like Elvis in the end. Drugged, confused, surrounded by zombies, he was just going too far. The magic was gone, and he knew it. He knew. I didn’t kill him – he was already dead.”

There is something of Jean-Luc Godard’s pioneering French New Wave films about Nadja. Like Godard, Almereyda alternates between everyday verisimilitude and deliberate artificiality, the latter generally coming in the form of winking references to the original Dracula’s Daughter. In the process, Nadja/Zaleska becomes separated from her original context, drifting ghostlike through a pixelated mist.

As in Dracula’s Daughter, the vampiress is slain at the end of Nadja. But this time she is allowed an afterlife, her spirit inhabiting a new body – one in which she can perhaps do a better job of fitting in with her surroundings.

Zaleska’s Legacy

This is fitting, as the spirit of Marya Zaleska did indeed find new bodies within vampire fiction. When Hammer adapted Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla in the overtly lesbian The Vampire Lovers (1970), the vampiress was played by Ingrid Pitt – an actress who bore little resemblance to Le Fanu’s girlish Carmilla, but did rather suggest a 1970s update of Gloria Holden. Pitt went on to play vampires in Countess Dracula and The House That Dripped Blood the following year; collectively, the three roles form perhaps the era’s most iconic image of female vampirism, and continue to influence the genre today.

An even more significant example of the impact that Dracula’s Daughter had on the vampire genre can be found in the work of Anne Rice. In Prism in the Light: A Biography of Anne Rice, Katherine Ramsland quotes Rice as saying

“[Dracula’s Daughter was] the first time I saw vampires as a kid. I loved the tragic figure of Dracula’s daughter as the regretful creature who didn’t want to kill but was driven to do it. The tragic dimension is at its fullest, most eloquent and articulate in Dracula’s daughter because she herself was articulate and intelligent.”

Rice’s 1976 debut novel, Interview with the Vampire, did much to popularise the notion of the vampire as a tragic, sympathetic protagonist – and this was an interpretation that Rice lifted from Dracula’s Daughter.

Due to it being a sequel to a much better-known film, overviews of the vampire genre often fail to give Dracula’s Daughter full credit. Marya Zaleska deserves better: as the character that introduced the archetypes of the lesbian vampire and the sympathetic vampire to the screen, she must surely be amongst the most influential in the genre.

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