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