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
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.