I recently began revisiting the Universal horror classics, as many do around Halloween. However, rather than watching Tod Browning’s Dracula from 1931 for the hundredth time, I decided to watch 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter. I hadn’t seen it before, but it didn’t take long for me to understand why it was notable in its context as a female-led horror film.
In her titular role as Dracula’s daughter, Countess Marya Zaleska acts as our villain. Unlike her father, she struggles internally with her identity as a vampire. One the one hand, she must indulge her need to find prey. On the other hand, she despises that impulse for the cruelty she must inflict on others. Despite her guilt, she invites a young woman to her apartment under the pretense that she is an artist in need of a model. As the scene progresses, the young woman disrobes, sheepishly covering herself as the hungry vampire surveys her body. Watching the scene, I immediately recalled the 1933 film Song of Songs, in which Marlene Dietrich is similarly recruited by sculptor Brian Aherne to model and sheds her clothes for the session. Something similar happens in 1931’s The Common Law starring Joel McCrea and Constance Bennett. So given my familiarity with this narrative device as a pretense for romantic development, when the model turned to find Countess Zaleska staring intently at her and asked “Why are you looking at me that way?” I had to ask myself, “Wait…this is pretty gay, right?”
Jeffrey Weinstock writes in his book The Vampire Film: Undead Cinema that “Vampire movies, always on some level, are about sex, thus constitute a discourse of sexuality that participated in shaping cultural attitudes toward gender and sexuality.” That is a very eloquent way of saying that some people think vampires are really hot. Sure, they may be undying bloodsuckers, but infatuation is understandable to a certain extent. Every vampire is different–Lugosi’s Dracula has little in common with Edward Cullen or Eli from Let Right One In or even other Draculas for that matter–but most have some combination of traits that allow for sexualization. They’re forever young, mysterious, often rich or stylish. Many films portray vampires as brooding, hot goths like in The Hunger or Only Lovers Left Alive. Most require charisma to lure unsuspecting prey to private spaces, or to navigate typical social situations undetected. The methodical vampire doesn’t attack violently, so much as seduce. And then of course there’s the bite, which typically occurs in a literal erogenous zone.
Plus, let’s face it, if you have to pick a monster, you don’t have much of a choice. The rotting skin of the living dead isn’t very attractive. Not all ghosts look like Patrick Swayze. Frankenstein’s monster isn’t exactly a great conversationalist. Guillermo Del Toro made a good argument for the Creature from the Black Lagoon, but breathing would be an issue. And then there’s the furry facade of the Wolfman, which, now that I think about it, probably has more fans than I initially assumed.
If vampires are the most likely monster to be sexualized, then they are also the most likely to be queered. The lesbian vampire specifically, as I hinted at earlier, has endured (perhaps unfortunately) as one of the most prolific representations of female homosexuality in cinema. Last year, Quad Cinema in New York City even ran a series dedicated to the trope. Like anything that’s been around for a long time, we can learn a lot about society’s attitudes towards women, sexuality, and homosexuality by charting how these portrayals have evolved over time.
Countess Zaleska existed during a time when sexuality was heavily policed by film censors and by society at large. By 1936, any references to sexuality or sexual acts had to be coded or implied. So while the film does not explicitly state or show Zaleska as anything other than heterosexual, the metaphor is hard to miss. The film brands her as a cursed degenerate who literally seeks therapy to overcome her natural desires. In her world, as in the 1930s generally, repression is the key to happiness.
Contrast her experience with the lady vampires of the 60s and 70s. As the sexual revolution continued to redefine American society, cinema too saw broadened depictions of sexuality. Film scholarship from this time notes the prevalence of the ‘male gaze’, a term coined by Laura Mulvey in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. In a sexually permissive landscape, the lesbian vampire evolves from a condemnation of deviant behavior to a male heterosexual fantasy come to life. The Karnstein trilogy from Hammer films–The Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust for a Vampire (1971), and Twins of Evil (1971)– features plenty of ‘first-five-minutes-of-a-porno’ dialogue and gratuitous nudity. Vampyros Lesbos (1971) also shamelessly indulges in exploitation. Unsurprisingly, no matter how powerful the vampire, the films are not exactly empowering. They are labeled as horror or villainy, allowing audiences to enjoy the behavior without endorsing it.
Recent films have spoofed this trope, and there have been attempts to modernize it (True Blood I’m told had many LGBT characters). Still, given the near constant stream of vampire films and television shows, a mature attempt at portraying these relationships beyond exploitation has yet to emerge. I think it’s about time, personally. Hell, I’d watch a remake of Twilight if Kristen Stewart got to play Edward (dear god, someone get Olivier Assayas to direct that).