Look, I never said I was proud of the things I liked when I was kid, alright? And I’m even less proud of some of the things I watched now, some twenty years later, all excited about realizing how stupid they are only to realize that while, yes, they are pretty stupid, I still don’t dislike them nearly as much as I probably should. The fact of the matter is that those movies I saw as a wee sprout camped out on the floor of my friend’s house soaking in the warm glow of satellite television absolutely will not budge from their lofty spot of “fun” no matter how much rational thought and taste I apply in my vain attempt to dislodge them, and you all know that I am, if nothing else, a man of impeccable taste.
As has been and will forever be apparent, I harbor an epic number of obsessions, fetishes, and curiosities that provide me nigh endless material for exploring and exposing to the public. Among the ones that have yet to be mentioned is a fondness for movies about the French Foreign Legion. Not the modern one, with their modern weapons and uniforms. I mean the old one, with the white pants, blue coats, and kepis, marching through the desert because that’s what the French Foreign Legion does. Desert Sands is a high-spirited desert adventure in that style they only seemed to do in the 1950s, with plenty of dashing heroes, daring-do, romance, fiendish locals, and a French Foreign Legion battalion that seems much more like a British officers’ club.
Most folks cite the slick gangster film A Better Tomorrow as the breakout film for both director John Woo and actor Chow Yun-fat. And that is, in part, true. It was the film that made them both household names (Chow far more than Woo, at least at the time, when the name of a star was much more important than the name of a director), and it spawned hundreds of imitations. Where Jet Li’s Shaolin Temple made mainland Chinese kids want to quit school and go join the Shaolin Temple, A Better Tomorrow made Hong Kong kids wear Ray Bans and overcoats and quit school to join triad gangs. Woo the Christian pacifist must be really proud of that.
In recent years, pop culture fascination with the end of the world has resurfaced after years of dormancy during which we were all enjoying the good ol’ years of Bill Clinton, the dotcom industry, and a relatively peaceful time as long as you ignore that whole Balkan thing. Yeah, we might have used a giant asteroid to destroy Paris just for kicks from time to time, but when it comes down to ending the world, we pretty much became disinterested during the 1990s. The end of the Cold War seems to have dashed our post-apocalyptic fantasies. Gone were the days of an Evil Empire and a Red Scare. Gone were the days when middle school youths would organize themselves out in the woods to build a bomb shelter that would eventually evolve to resemble a foot deep hole covered by a sheet of warped plywood.
See, it all started back around 499 B.C. The Persian Empire was having some serious trouble with their territories along the Greek coast. The city-state of Miletus led a revolt against the Persian conquerors, but their hope that the famously fierce Sparta would rush to their aid did not come to fruition. Sparta was having enough trouble just keeping its serfs from revolting and didn’t have time to go helping other cats in a revolt of their own. The rebel city-states did find aid from Athens, however. A victory in the provincial capitol of Sardis encouraged other conquered Greek cities to rise up as well, and before they knew it, Persia was looking at a good chunk of its empire suddenly breaking away. The key to sustaining the empire was in whuppin’ the Greek mainland, specifically, in whuppin’ Athens. Sparta was a threat as well, but their hesitance to travel very far out of their own territory meant Athens was in the bullseye.
If you are familiar either with me or with my work on this site, it probably comes as no shock that I rank Gymkata as one of the most valuable players on an amazing and occasionally sparkly team. I’ve been pushing this movie on people for decades, armed at first with little more than my cherished VHS copy in its oversized gray MGM/UA box. Since then, and much to my delight, Gymkata has become a touchstone of pop culture references. People know it, even if they haven’t seen it, and knowing, as you know, is half the battle. And while some people get irritated when something they’ve been name-dropping for years suddenly gets embraced by the larger mainstream non-mainstream society (Chuck Norris karate jeans being the most recent example), I bear no ill will toward those who are late in coming to Gymkata. Lord knows there are plenty of things for which I showed up late. I don’t consider it to be some secret to be guarded jealously and to the death by fanatic soldiers armed with weird masks, AK-47s, and scimitars. As far as I’m concerned, the more people who have the word “gymkata” on their lips, the better.
In 1958, Dracula would return in name but not with the familiar face of cinema’s best-known and most beloved Dracula, Bela Lugosi. Bela would return to the screen several times as a vampire, but never again as Dracula. So Dracula returned in Return of Dracula without Bela, and Bela returned in Return of the Vampire, without Dracula. Granted, Return of the Vampire pushes Bela’s character, Armand Tesla, as close to Dracula territory as it possibly can without getting slapped with a lawsuit, but that’s all part of the fun of vamping in the aftermath of Universal’s 1931 landmark Dracula, to say nothing of the need to occasionally satisfy/pay the estate of Bram Stoker. And Dracula or not, Return of the Vampire feels like the legitimate sequel to Dracula, even if intellectual property says it isn’t. Disentangled from all that, however, we are still left with an exceptionally enjoyable horror film with a unique setting and interesting lead character.
England, 1918. The countryside is terrorized by a vampire, his well-spoken werewolf assistant, and a preponderance of creepy mist-enshrouded graveyards. Two scientists — Dr. Walter Saunders and Lady Jane Ainsley (Frieda Inescort) — are struggling to figure out why so many local women are turning up bloodless and/or mad. Despite their commitment to science and the rational mind, it soon becomes undeniable that a vampire is stalking the misty moors. The two of them track the bloodsucker to the local creepy, abandoned cemetery and stake the fiend, ending his reign of terror and freeing the werewolf Andreas (who had apparently popped down to the dry goods store for a bit) from the vampires eldritch thrall.
Years later, and London finds itself under siege from the German Luftwaffe. A bomb unearths the vampire Dr Tesla’s grave. Two well-meaning grave diggers, thinking that the corpse they discover is a fine English gentleman impaled by a bit of rubbish from the Nazi bomb, remove the stake from the body’s heart and re-bury the corpse. Dr. Saunders has also passed away, and upon his passing had published his papers detailing his thoughts on vampirism and the quest to kill the devilish vampire, Dr. Armand Tesla. Unfortunately, this admittance of murder lands Lady Ainsley in some hot water. Police officer Sir Frederick Fleet commands her to attend the exhuming of Tesla’s body to determine just what sort of monkey business she and Saunders involved themselves in some two decades prior. But when they arrive, they find not only Tesla’s original grave empty, but also the new grave into which he was placed. While this seemingly absolves Lady Ainsley of murder, she is considerably more troubled by the realization that Tesla the vampire is apparently returned from the grave…again.
Around the same time, scientist Dr. Hugo Bruckner (Bela Lugosi) arrives in town and takes an interest in the work being done by Lady Ainsley and her assistant, the now reformed werewolf Andreas. We, of course, know that Dr. Bruckner is really the vampiric Dr. Tesla, and frankly, his penchant for the gratuitous donning of opera capes should have clued everyone else in as well. Before too long, the crafty vampire has re-enslaved Andreas and set his sights on destroying everyone close to Lady Jane before destroying her as well. Lady Jane, however, is not one to sit around doing nothing. She soon deduces the true identity of Bruckner and is determined to stop him, despite gruff dismissal of her opinions by skeptical Sir Frederick.
Released in 1944, Return of the Vampire finds itself comfortably placed in the tail-end of the Universal horror cycle. Most of the good sequels had run their course, and Universal was starting to crank out increasingly cheap sequels to The Mummy and increasingly silly (but still entertaining, in my book) monster team-ups like House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. Return of the Vampire not only could have passed for an official part of the Universal horror cycle; it could have passed as one of the better examples of such a film. Unlike other horror films of the time, it takes the classic mood and overall look but many things in a different and more innovative way than its higher profile contemporaries. Chief among these would be divorcing itself from the usual assembly of heroes — a wise older man, a strapping younger man, and a young and useless damsel in distress — and instead making the central hero a middle-aged woman. Frieda Inescort’s Lady Jane Ainsley is a welcome digression from the expected. She’s smarter, more rational, more caring, and more open-minded than any of the others around her. And to go superficial, at age 43 or so (which is not actually old, mind you) when she appeared in this film, Frieda Inescort still makes for a very elegant beauty.
In appearance, behavior, and slicking back of the hair, it’s pretty obvious that Bela’s Dr. Tesla is meant to resemble his Dracula as closely as it could without getting everyone sued by Universal Studios. Bela is solid here, though his performance lacks some of the charisma and menace he had been able to conjure in his earlier roles. Dr. Tesla is considerably less suave and much crankier than Dracula. Bela’s still an able performer though, and it’s great to see him back in the cape, biting people on the neck and drifting into the open windows of susceptible young women. His dialogue isn’t great, but Bela still delivers it to the best of his macabre ability, and despite some so-so writing the movie still affords Bela a level of respect and dignity that would be absent from his subsequent movies. Even if he was not allowed by law to be referred to as Dracula, this movie still makes for the most legitimate feeling sequel to the 1931 film that was produced, certainly more so tan the token Dracula appearances in the Universal House of… movies where the infamous bloodsucker was tangential to the plot and played by different actors.
Most of the rest of the cast, including the pair of young lovebirds on whom Tesla has set his eyes and fangs, is largely disposable. The only other character of note besides Lady Ainsley and Dr. Tesla is Andreas, the tortured werewolf who finds himself at the beck and call of the vampire despite his revulsion at everything he is commanded to do. In the original Wolfman, Lon Chaney Jr. aced the pathos of a good man cursed to become a murderous beast. Matt Willis’ Andreas is similarly sympathetic, though the nature of his lycanthropy doesn’t seem to conform to any known werewolf lore and is instead a state that can be turned on and off by his vampire master. Some of the scenes of Andreas in werewolf form, looking sort of like Michael Landon’s teenage werewolf from I Was a Teenage Werewolf, are a little on the silly side. Bela seems to love to shift Andreas into wolfman mode than send him out to do menial tasks and run errands around town that would probably have been better and more successfully accomplished by someone who didn’t look like a werewolf. But Matt Willis’ performance is enough to win you over and make you brush off the occasional absurd shot of the werewolf, in his suit, casually carrying packages of dry cleaning or whatever through the streets of London.
One of the other interesting things Return of the Vampire does is adapt the look of the old Universal horror films for a new decade. The original films were influenced by the German expressionist horror films of the silent era and the look of Europe after the first World War, which is why you get so many scenes of monsters staggering across misty wastelands littered with dead trees and crooked cemetery crosses. It was meant to invoke the look and desolation of the Western Front’s No Man’s Land. Set in and made during World War II, Return of the Vampire is able to recall that sort of set design then augment it with very real, very current scenes of the devastation of London during the Blitz. Bombed out churches, ruined city blocks, and air raid sirens combine with the iconic creepy tombs and foggy graveyards. From time to time, the film comes up with some stunning compositions worthy of being compared to the best the Universal horror films or even the old, visually mesmerizing silent films had to offer. Specifically, a scene near the end of the film that sees the vampire, the werewolf, and a seduced young woman moving as shadows and shrouds in a misty cemetery is fantastic.
I went into Return of the Vampire with expectations that, while not high, were still expectations. The idea of Dracula — even if he has a different name — skulking around Blitz-era London seemed a concept rife with potential. And I was thoroughly pleased with the results. Lady Jane makes a great and unique hero in the pantheon of horror film good guys (and women), and even if Bela isn’t at the top of his game, he’s still playing a pretty good game. The film is light on genuine scares, but it musters some OK chills and an exciting level of tension. Add to that some striking visuals and a quick pace, and you have quite the enjoyable film. It’s only real misstep comes at the very end, with an ill-advised breaking of the fourth wall. That is pretty easy to ignore though, and the rest of the film delivers. It may not be a sequel to 1931′s Dracula, but it’s still a pretty good sequel to 1931′s Dracula.
Release Date: 1944 | Country: United States | Starring: Bela Lugosi, Frieda Inescort, Nina Foch, Miles Mander, Roland Varno, Matt Willis, William Austin, Jeanne Bates, Billy Bevan, Harold De Becker, Leslie Denison, Gilbert Emery, Stanley Logan, George McKay, Clara Reid | Screenplay: Griffin Jay | Director: Lew Landers | Cinematography: L.W. O’Connell, John Stumar | Music: Mario C. Tedesco | Producer: Sam White
Toei Movieland Studio hadn’t been on our official itinerary, but I convinced people to give it a try even though I was the only big Japanese movie fan in the bunch. Toei had given some of my absolute favorite sci-fi superhero shows, and the chance to see one of their studios was too good for me to pass up. After shelling out a rather hefty ¥2500 per person to get in (note: this was in 2001; it is probably more now), I quickly began to realize it wasn’t going to be as cool as I’d hoped. The entrance was was a museum of samurai and ninja articles, most of them from then upcoming movie Red Shadow. A large screen television played clips of various Toei samurai movies and histories of the studio. None of it was especially interesting, unfortunately.
In the wake of the success of Universal’s 1931 shocker Dracula, there were many attempts to continue and/or cash in on its success, but for one reason or another, Universal itself was never able to capitalize on Dracula the same way it did when it turned both Frankenstein and The Mummy (and later, The Creature from the Black Lagoon) into franchises. Even in the later monster team-up House of… films, Dracula was at best a supporting player, even when his name was in the title, and the vampire prince of darkness didn’t really interact with the other monsters (or the main storyline). The fact that Dracula was so closely identified at the time with Bela Lugosi, and that Lugosi himself never returned to the role (at least in an official capacity), probably hindered Dracula from becoming the same sort of series as did the other Universal monsters. But where Universal failed, others were ready to step in and try to hitch their wagon to the Dracula gravy train…err, or some metaphor like that. Dracula liked gravy, right?
Released in 1958, Return of Dracula comes many years after the Dracula craze in particular and the Universal monsters in general had been relegated to the past in favor of atomic terrors and science fiction. Long enough, I suppose, that someone was thinking it was time for a revival, or that they were feeling nostalgic about the old films. But a lot had happened both technically and stylistically to films in those intervening years, resulting in Return of Dracula having one foot in old style horror and the other foot in something more like the police procedurals and quasi-noirs of the forties and early fifties. It’s a cheap movie, low-key, and boasting no big stars or established horror film icons, which is probably part of the reason the movie was more or less forgotten. It’s not bad at all, though, and it achieves a fair amount of tension rather than scares thanks in large part to a likable heroine in Norma Eberhardt’s Rachel Mayberry and a menacing “monster” in Francis Lederer’s Bellac Gordal, better known perhaps by his older name: Count Dracula.
Dracula, forever harried by vampire hunters in his native country, kills an artist on a train and assumes his identity, immigrating to the united States and settling in with the dead artist’s relatives (who have never met nor seen a photo of their foreign-born relation). Living now under the name Bellac Gordal, Dracula does his best to adapt to suburban American life, attributing his curious demeanor and odd hours to being an artist and a European. All the while, however, he is laying the foundation for turning the quiet, dull town into the focal point of a new vampire empire. When the vampire hunters track him to the town, they have a hard time convincing rational, salt-of-the-earth Americans that these tales of vampires are more than nutty Old World superstition.
Although there is probably plenty of comedy to be mined from a high concept like “Dracula moves to the California suburbs,” this is not the movie in which to go looking for such comedy. Return of Dracula plays it straight, with a Dracula who adapts to his new surroundings with the proficiency of a creature that has had to adapt to new eras and new surroundings many times before. Part of what makes the horror work in this movie is the choice to avoid the yuks and explore, instead, the idea of Old World horrors seeping into the clean, ordered, and thoroughly modern world of the mid-American suburb. As a kid seeing this movie (which I was not), it must have been exciting to think that no matter how manicured the lawns and sterile the environment, there could still be a vampire lurking around the corner. The infection of such familiar and boring a setting with the affectations of ancient evil — ghostly figures, billowing fog, menacing shadows — makes for an effectively chilling juxtaposition of old and new.
I suppose given the era in which this movie was made, one could force a Cold War paranoia subtext into the mix: mysterious Eastern Europeans coming to threaten whitebread, wholesome America. That Lederer comes across less as a monster being pursued by monster hunters and more as a spy on the run also makes it easy to see a Red Menace theme beneath the vampire tale. At the very least, the difference in cultures is exploited as Dracula’s every quirk is attributed to his foreignness by his American “family,” who are welcoming and warm but also ignorant. The arrival of Cousin Bellac gives them — especially young daughter Rachel, just starting to become a woman — a taste of the exotic and non-conformist in sharp contrast to the familiar order around them. Bellac senses this and is able again to cover his tracks and his unfamiliarity not just with being an American, but with being a human, with the anti-authoritarian air of the artist, which only makes him more appealing to the dissatisfied Rachel. His attempts to set up a new vampire “hive” is tantamount to small-town American being infiltrated by an agent seeking to establish Communist cells. It’s also no accident, I would imagine, that Dracula assumes the identity of an artist, with circles of such creative and oddball persons being regarded as hotbeds of Socialism and Communist sympathy.
Dracula movies usually live or die on the merits of their Dracula. Francis Lederer takes a very weird, very different, and for me very successful approach to the legendary count. There is in his portrayal a hint of the “ancient monster awkwardly trying to mimic a human” that underlies Bela’s Dracula, but he is not doing an imitation of Lugosi. Far more than that, Lederer has the paranoid fidgeting and darting eyes of an early Eurocrime villain, like someone who might have wandered out of a Dr. Mabuse film or one of the early Hitchcock espionage thrillers. By all accounts, Lederer was not overly excited to be involved with the film (although not a star, he was a seasoned actor by this time), but whatever disdain he might have had for the low-budget production either didn’t affect his performance or did so in a way that actually benefits the film. He’s weird, disaffected at some times and overly passionate at others, consistently off-kilter and always creepy and threatening without resorting to the obvious.
On the other side of the coin is Rachel. Pure of heart, fresh-faced, giving and kind, yet also starting to question her surroundings. She is not as happy with her dorky all-American boyfriend as she could be. She aspires to be both an artist (fashion designer) and humanitarian (nurse). She is given all the personality tools she needs to be an easy seduction for the vampire/Communist spy as well as the one who can resist him. There is real tension regarding which way she will go. Norma Eberhardt turns in a good if somewhat stilted at times performance, and the fact that Rachel is a genuinely nice and warm character makes the danger looming over her in the living room much more effective. Modern horror has for quite some time depended too much on the assumed desire of the audience to see despicable people punished, which can have its moments I grant you. But I miss when horror would also create real tension by taking someone you like and putting them in a dangerous situation. For me, anyway, that’s a much more sustainable sort of tension (and a lot less irritating to watch than 90 minutes of horrible people sniping and bickering before someone just shoves a pipe through their face).
At the beginning of this article, I posited that a film like this got made because someone thought we were due for a resurgence in supernatural horror after years dominated by atomic age terrors. And they were right, even if it wasn’t Return of Dracula that sparked that revival. Director Paul Landres and screenwriter Pat Fielder were on a vampire kick. Before teaming up for Return of Dracula, they had also worked with each other on the previous year’s The Vampire. It’s not surprising that their vampire films would be very different takes from previous versions of the vampire movie. Landres’ experience was almost entirely in westerns and crime television, and Fielder was new at the game, with only one credit (he co-scripted The Monster that Challenged the World) to his name before he and Landres concocted their vampire tales. Their takes on vampires and vampirism were exceptionally interesting, but audiences weren’t as interested as Landres hoped. They wanted vampires again, just not his vampires. The same year Return of Dracula was released, England’s Hammer Studio released Horror of Dracula, starring Peter Cushing as Van Helsing and Christopher Lee as an animalistic, force-of-nature interpretation of Dracula. That film, with its more familiar take on the legend, brilliant color filming, exquisite period sets and costumes, shocking bloodshed and sexuality, overshadowed the comparatively low-key Return of Dracula. The classical horror revival happened then, but it happened Hammer’s way and in Hammer’s image.
While I love Hammer horror, it’s too bad Return of Dracula got buried and forgotten. It’s a deceptively fascinating and complex vampire-turned-thriller movie. Being of liberal and artistic leanings myself, I don’t necessarily agree with the message about swarthy Eastern European types infecting wholesome America with their socialist ideas, artistic history, and interesting suits; but I also don’t think this is a cut and dry “foreigners are dangerous” morality tale. After all, it’s the ignorance of the Americans that Dracula is able to exploit to cover his crimes. He plays on stereotypes and expectations. Similarly, it’s more Eastern Europeans who show up and convince the American authorities that something supernatural is in their midst. And the most annoying character is the most gee-whiz all-American boy: Rachel’s well-meaning but lunkheaded boyfriend. Whatever the case, Return of Dracula has a lot to offer. It is, as I said, more satisfying as a thriller than straight horror film, though its moments of horror are eerie and effective. The whole thing is infused with enough menace, paranoia, and lurking menace to keep it tense even when Dracula is just hanging out in his bedroom. Return of Dracula is well worth rediscovering, or if you are like me, discovering for the first time.
Release Date: 1958 | Country: United States | Starring: Francis Lederer, Norma Eberhardt, Ray Stricklyn, John Wengraf, Virginia Vincent, Gage Clarke, Jimmy Baird, Greta Granstedt, Enid Yousen, Robert Lynn, John McNamara, Norbert Schiller | Screenplay: Pat Fielder | Director: Paul Landres | Cinematography: Jack MacKenzie | Music: Gerald Fried | Producer: Arthur Gardner, Jules V. Levy | Availability: DVD (Amazon)
Kaiju films were old hat in Japan by the 1970s, but elsewhere in Asia the giant monster film industry was only just getting going. Inspired by Japanese movies like Godzilla and, even more so, television shows like Ultraman and Kamen Rider, aspiring (or canny) filmmakers (or hucksters) in Thailand, Hong Kong, and Korea decided they too would pit their cities against giant monsters and invading aliens against super-sized superheroes. South Korea was among the first kaiju copycats out of the gate with 1967′s Yongary. Because it’s Asian and features an irritating little kid in tiny shorts and a dinosaur-like giant monster, most people chalk it up as a Godzilla clone. It has far more to do, though, with that do-gooder crusading giant turtle Gamera and, in my opinion, even more to do with Western rip-offs of Godzilla and Gamera, like 1961′s Gorgo. Eh, whatever the case, a dude in a rubber suit was kicking over buildings and swatting model jets out of the matte painted sky much to the delight of all.