You know, some days I have to try and find serious, thoughtful comments to make about films. Other days I get to reviews films like Zombie 3 and this little gem from the collective minds of Lamberto Bava and Dario Argento. Lamberto, of course, is the son of Italian horror legend Mario Bava, who gave the world some of the most acclaimed horror films of his day. And few horror fans need an introduction to Dario Argento, the man who revolutionized horror and suspense films, the man who directed such genre classics as Suspiria, Deep Red, and Terror at the Opera. Put these two together and you could only create something amazing, right? Well, maybe. Unfortunately, Lamberto Bava is to Mario what Lon Chaney Jr. was to Lon Chaney Sr. The end result of the Bava – Argento collaboration is just like what happened when Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground teamed up with Kiss. You expect incredible things. You get The Elder.
I’m going to have to cram a bunch of history up front in this review, so if you already know most of it, please forgive me. I feel it sets the stage properly for those among you who aren’t nerdy enough to have a vast and swelling knowledge of the ins and outs of British censorship efforts, Italian slasher-thriller movies, and the joyous day those two tastes were plunged together into a scrummy treat known as the “Video Nasties” list. Let me first take back to a time when Samantha Fox was still a fox (maybe she still is; I haven’t seen her in years) and the world was just beginning to discover the pleasure of home video systems. England has always had a somewhat contentious relationship with cinema censorship, and certain types who like to get upset over idiotic things were worried about the fact that the rules governing the rating, licensing, and editing of films for release to British theaters had not been written in a language that would allow them to be applied equally to films distributed on video. This little lapse in the foresight of censorship laws to anticipate the invention and subsequent wildfire-like spread of VCRs meant that films previously cut or banned could be legally (more or less) distributed in uncut format on videotape. It seems like they could have solved this dilemma by simply adding “and videos, too” in biro at the end of the book of law, but that’s not how England does things.
I cannot count “point of view” films among the styles of film making for which I possess much tolerance. Aside from rarely being the least bit convincing as “found footage,” relying as they do on the conceit that assorted people would continue to film an incident long after the extreme danger factor would move just about any human in the world to put down the camera and run, there’s just not too much about them that I find appealing. They’re too jittery, too shallow, too… well, obnoxious. The POV films I’ve seen to date have either proved to have remarkable little staying power (The Blair Witch Project, ground zero for this trend, was fun the first time when I knew nothing about it but becomes less impressive after that) or were simply unwatchable from the get-go (Diary of the Dead). Maybe if they spent less time on characters bickering and screaming “What is that???” while flailing a camera around, I would warm to them.
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
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)
Some great directors die in the midst of their career and leave behind an inadvertent final film that does not reflect the quality of their larger career. Few would argue, for example, that Family Plot is a fitting capstone for the career of Alfred Hitchcock, or that Stanley Kubrick’s career was well served by having Eyes Wide Shut as his swan song or that Sam Peckinpah’s career ended well with The Osterman Weekend. On the other hand, some director’s die while working and leave behind a final film so stunningly perfect as their final statement that it seems hard to believe the whole thing wasn’t planned by some benevolent supreme being. Had the legendary Bruno Mattei’s life and career ended on any note other than Zombies: The Beginning, then truly this would have been a cruel and uncaring universe. But end with Zombies: The Beginning it did, and so Mattei departed this mortal coil via a film that is the perfect summation of everything he ever contributed to the world of cinema.
In 1960, American International Picture’s “house” director Roger Corman convinced the notoriously cheap movie studio to pony up a little extra time and money (and color film) to produce Corman’s attempt to capture the lush Gothic atmosphere of a Hammer horror film. Against their thrifty nature, the studio relented, allowing the ambitious and inventive director a staggering fourteen days to make Fall of the House of Usher. The resulting film, a landmark in American horror, is a necessarily narrowly focused affair — there are only four characters — but it’s a fantastic accomplishment. The quick turn-around time and low budget is hardly evident. Every frame is stuffed with decaying Gothic opulence and vibrant color, and the talky nature and slow pace of the film never causes the narrative to drag, thanks almost entirely to the brilliant and tortured performance by Vincent Price. AIP’s risky (for them) investment paid off. The film was a hit, and audiences used to seeing cheap black and white horror were dazzled by this sudden explosion of color and quality. When the dollars started pouring in, AIP gave the go-ahead to Corman for another film in the same vein. And another. And thus was born what’s known as AIP’s Poe Cycle, a series of consistently high-quality horror films based (extremely loosely at times) on the writing of Edgar Allan Poe (and, in one case, H.P. Lovecraft, but they sold it as Poe).
Oh Death Spa, what have you done? All those years I spent bad-mouthing slasher films from the 1980s, then you go and immediately make yourself one of my all-time favorite horror films by being one of the most cracked, absurd examples of horror film making one is likely to stumble across. It’s probably because you actually have less to do with the American slasher films that permeated the horror scene during that prolific decade and instead can count yourself the peer of batshit insane Italian horror films from the same decade. You are less Jason Vorhees and Friday the 13th and more Lamberto Bava and Demons. I loved you when in the first five minutes you gave me Ken Foree in micro-shorts, full frontal nudity, and attempted murder by steam room. But then you just kept piling absurdity on top of insanity, so that by the time we got to the frozen flying eel, I was willing to pledge my very soul to you.
As we entered the 1980s and the dawn of the Reagan Years, we didn’t have much to worry about. Other than a recession, the ramping up of terrorism in the Middle East, the threat of nuclear war with the Soviets, and people popping the collars on their Polo shirts, things were pretty cool. With nothing to occupy our national sense of anxiety, we retreated into the realm of made-up, silly crap over which to fret and wring our hands nervously. The primary focus of our societal outrage and terror: heavy metal music. And more specifically, the role Ol’ Gooseberry played in its popularity. America’s collective hysteria over Satan and his sinister ability to seduce impressionable youths and bohemians into the folds of his cloven arms began in the late 1960s when hippies started dabbling in Occultism, witchcraft, sex magick and the occasional murder of Sharon Tate.
If exploitation cinema can be traced to a single wellspring from which all its filth and fury flows, an argument can be made that said wellspring is Dwain Esper. Writer, producer, director, and all around impresario, Esper may not have made the first exploitation film. The silent era was rife with exploitation and sleaze, usually masquerading under a flimsy veneer of “cautionary tale,” like 1913′s The Inside of the White Slave Traffic. I’d be willing to go to the mat, however, in defense of Esper’s position as the godfather of the exploitation industry as we know it today. His impact goes far beyond being a mere director. Working with fellow exploitation godfather Louis Sonney (father of exploitation cinema legend Dan Sonney), Esper helped establish the network of theaters and concept of regional circuits that served as the foundation for the exploitation film. From burlesque to motion picture to roadshow, Esper had a hand in all of it, and for that, his name should be forever enshrined as one of the true pioneers in the history of the motion picture (it’s not). But even if he’d never done any of that, even if all he’d ever done is direct Maniac — known also by the slightly less sensation title of Sex Maniac — he would still deserve to go on the Mount Rushmore of strange film. Incidentally, the Mount Rushmore of strange film is located in an abandoned central Florida amusement park, and it’s made of fiberglass.