I was strolling across Prague’s Karluv Most, as is the way of a jetsetting international gentleman such as myself, admiring the irreverent and disrespectful birds who insist on perching atop the heads of historical and religious figures of considerable import, when out of the corner of my eye I spied something somewhat more appealing to my temperaments than a procession of earnest and tortured looking popes, saints, and saviors. Nestled into a cozy looking cobblestone cul de sac at the western end of the bridge was a wooly mammoth. “My word!” I exclaimed at this unexpected but not unwelcome sight, “this looks just the sort of thing in needs of a more detailed degree of exploration.” On a stone arch above the gate that opened into the mammoth’s courtyard was a sign: Film Special Effects Museum. And below it the sub-head: Muzeum Karla Zemana.
Genghis Khan is certainly one of the great figures in the history of the world. When you say “Mongolia,” he’s the first person of whom you’re likely to think. He conquered China, swept westward, and eventually had a chain of shopping mall formal wear rental stores named after him. Were it not for Genghis Khan’s contributions to society, I would have been at a loss as to wear to rent my tux for the prom back in 1990. But aside from all that, he was one of the world’s great conquerors, and whether he was a hero or a villain depends largely on whether or not he conquered in your name or just plain conquered you. Certainly as with all history’s epic conquerors — Ramses, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Vlad Tepes, and Bono from U2 — Genghis Khan is a person who lends himself to having a sweeping, vast, and complex movie made about his life and influence. And like most of the conquerors throughout history, he’s still waiting for that movie to be made.
When last we saw Baron Victor Frankenstein, he was being marched to the guillotine to face a beheading for the murders committed by his man-made man, not to mention the murders in which he himself dabbled. Well, you can’t keep a good mad scientist down, and there are none better or madder than Cushing’s Frankenstein. With the help of a prison attendant who wants access to the Baron’s peculiar talents, Frankenstein escapes the execution and sets up a new identity and a new medical practice in another town. Hey, cheating death is what Frankenstein is all about, right? All seems to be going well for the doctor, who has a bustling private medical practice and a commendable public hospital for the poor. Sure he draws the ire of the local medical society when he refuses to join their ranks, but all in all, this new Dr. Stein (put a lot of thought into that one, didn’t ya, Victor? Better than Alucard, I reckon) seems to have turned over a new leaf and started working for the good of mankind. But wait…wasn’t that what he thought he was doing the last time around?
The world’s first manned expedition to Mars has vanished, and men in sparsely appointed offices are concerned by swirling newspaper headlines. When the rocket reappears, the world breathes a collective sigh of relief — until it’s discovered that only two of the four members of the crew are alive. On board the returning rocket is unbuttoned shirt aficionado and expedition leader Col. Thomas O’Bannion (a particularly sleazy Gerald Mohr), who has been incapacitated by some horrifying alien growth, and scientist Dr. Iris Ryan (Naura Hayden), known to the crew as Irish and in a state of shock that prevents her from remembering any of the details of the nightmarish fate that befell the crew. A third crew member, Doctor Morbius lookalike Prof. Theodore Gettell (Les Tremayne, War of the Worlds) is aboard the rocket but dead. And requisite blue-collar Joe Brooklyn guy Sam Jacobs (Jack Kruschen) is missing entirely. Making matters worse, all records of what happened to the crew while on Mars have been erased. The only way to save O’Bannion and discern what the heck happened on Mars is to snap poor, semi-catatonic Iris out of her fugue state…
Researching the history of Japanese yokai in cinema is a difficult task. At least, it’s a difficult task if, like me, you don’t read Japanese and are kind of lazy. Almost all of the English language writing about movies involving these bizarre and multitudinous creatures from Japanese folklore focuses on the three loosely related yokai movies released by Daei in the late 1960s — Spook Warfare, 100 Ghosts, and Along with Ghosts — or on Takashi Miike’s more recent take on those old movies, Great Yokai War. A few people will talk about the history of yokai in popular Japanese culture and the role Shigeru Mizuki and his manga series, GeGeGe no Kitaro, played in turning this bizarre assembly of ghosts, demons, monsters, and goblins into pop culture icons. But beyond that, the field of cinematic yokai studies is largely empty even though, as Ghost Stories of Wanderer at Honjo illustrates, someone was out there making yokai movies even before Mizuki published his comic book.
If you ever visit Ye Olde London Town, try and fit the Jack the Ripper walk into your itinerary. Ideally you should do it in spring or autumn, so that when you start out it’s daylight. But as you wander deeper into the backstreets of Whitechapel it gets increasingly dark (and if you’re lucky, a tad foggy). That way, as you find yourself in the one spot on the tour they can say with certainty that the Ripper stood, it’s fully night. It’s a chilling moment, something notably absent from 1959′s Jack the Ripper. Which isn’t to say it’s a bad film, just a rather silly one.
I spend a lot of time, perhaps too much time, waxing poetic about the golden cliches of yesteryear that seem to have disappeared from everywhere except Univision. Grown men dressed in those little sailor boy outfits holding oversized lollipops. Quicksand gags. So many lost greats. One of my favorite forgotten cinematic trends is the “scientist of everything.” Back in the 1950s, these guys were everywhere, and they were usually played by John Agar. Anyone familiar with old sci-fi films knows these guys. They are identified as “professor” but it’s never really clear what exactly they are professors of. At any given moment, they will prove themselves geniuses in the realms of physics, history, chemistry, geology, geography, aerospace engineering, paleontology, auto mechanics — you name it and these guys will show off their knowledge of it, usually at the belittlement of their clueless sidekick scientist, who is more than likely being played by Hugh Beaumont.
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.
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)
Macao starring one of our favorite half-asleep actors, Robert Mitchum, is an exceptionally good thriller, not exactly a noir film but a solid old school crime thriller with good pacing, cool characters, and a great twist. Despite the exotic setting, it doesn’t bank too heavily on the “shadowy Chinatown” style of filmmaking, and there are no Caucasians in fake eyelids parading about. Actually, no, there is apparently one, but it’s so well done that i didn’t even notice. In fact, there are very few Asian characters at all, other than a couple of assassins and a lot of background extras. Instead, the film focuses on a small group of ex-patriots who have converged on the infamously decadent and borderline lawless Portuguese colony.