The Return of the Vampire (1943) **Ĺ
Okay, we all know the story. Bela Lugosi became a big star as a consequence of his appearance in Dracula, but that fame proved to be as big a handicap as it was a boon, in that the man would spend the rest of his career hopelessly typecast, his name so inextricably linked to the character that he would even leave orders that he was to be buried in his black suit and cape. And yet Lugosi appears in not a single one of the sequels to Dracula until Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. How, then, can the well-worn tale be true? Well for one thing, Lugosi assayed the role on stage more times than you could easily count. But beyond that, he also played the notorious count-- always under another name-- in movies for studios other than Universal. The first was MGMís Mark of the Vampire, the last-- assuming it even qualifies-- was Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire. The Return of the Vampire was Columbiaís ersatz Dracula flick, in which the unmistakable Lugosi Dracula appears under the name of Dr. Armand Tesla.
Perhaps the most charming thing about The Return of the Vampire is the way that it so shamelessly recycles plot elements used earlier in Dracula and Draculaís Daughter. The filmís prologue, set in 1918, has the vampire Armand Tesla attempt to destroy the family of psychiatrist William Saunders (Gilbert Emery, from The House of the Seven Gables, who actually appeared in Draculaís Daughter) with the help of his werewolf sidekick Andreas (The Mysterious Doctorís Matt Willis). Why does Tesla have a werewolf for a sidekick? No reason, really, but Universal had invented the ďmonster rallyĒ earlier that year with the release of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and I suspect Columbia was experiencing werewolf envy. That isnít the only way the prologue sequence steals pages from Universalís playbook. So much of the action here is plagiarized from Draculaís Daughter itís not even funny. The most glaring example is the scene in which Dr. Saunders discovers a pair of fang-marks on the neck of one of his patients, and attempts to get her to tell what happened under hypnosis-- the woman dies of shock in the process. This scene appears almost line-for-line in the Universal movie. Anyway, Saunders eventually figures out whatís what, and he and his assistant Lady Jane Ainsley (Frieda Inescort, from The She-Creature and The Alligator People) track Tesla to his daytime hideout and kill him by driving an iron spike through his heart (the first cinematic appearance that I can recall of this common folkloric alternative to the customary wooden stake technique).
Some 25 years later, William Saunders is dead and the Second World War is in full swing. Lady Jane, who continues her mentorís work, has come into possession of some writings of his, in particular a notebook describing the doctorís encounter with the vampire. As for the other characters, Andreas (who was cured of his lycanthropy when Tesla died) has been rehabilitated and now works for Lady Jane; Saundersís daughter, Niki (Nina Foch of Cry of the Werewolf), is some kind of military auxiliary helping to coordinate the civil defense of London; and Ainsleyís son, John (Scared to Deathís Rolando Varno), is a musician of some sort. He and Niki are also engaged to be married. Lady Jane is very excited about the discovery of her old friendís notes on the Tesla case; sheís been itching for years to make a splash in scientific circles with proof that thereís more to the old superstitions and legends than modern Westerners believe, and she thinks that the old notebook offers her the chance. Her methods, however, leave a bit to be desired on the forethought front. Ainsley goes straight to the office of Sir Frederick Fleet of Scotland Yard (Miles Mander, from Fingers at the Window and The Picture of Dorian Gray), tells her story, and asks that the body of Armand Tesla be exhumed. Again we have a scene cribbed directly from Draculaís Daughter, and like its counterpart in the earlier film, this scene ends with Jane Ainsley being threatened with confinement to an asylum or prosecution for murder.
So in a way, itís a good thing for her that a German bomber attack on London exhumes Teslaís body instead. That way, it gets to be the cleanup crew that finds his curiously undecayed corpse beside its smashed coffin, and they end up being the ones who pull the spike from its heart (they think itís a bomb splinter) and re-bury it in the nearest patch of undisturbed ground. When Fleet and Ainsley arrive at the site of the original burial, thereís nothing but a huge, ragged hole in the ground, and the detective decides that he can see no point in proceeding with the investigation. But Lady Jane is not so easily dissuaded, and she takes it upon herself to track down the men who cleaned up the cemetery and ask them what happened to the body. It is now that she learns that one of the men removed the spike, and she is dismayed but far from surprised when the men lead her to the spot where they re-interred Tesla only to find another empty hole in the earth.
Meanwhile, Tesla has been spending a lot of time in Ainsleyís company, and she isnít even aware of it. With Andreasís help (it was a simple matter for Tesla to bring the man back under his power following his resurrection), he has assumed the identity of a German or perhaps Austrian scientist by the name of Dr. BrŁckner, whom the Resistance helped smuggle into Britain. The werewolf waylaid the professor, stole his clothes and identity papers, and handed them over to his undead master. Now Tesla is in a fine position to exact his revenge against the family of his killers, and he sets to work immediately. When Jane figures out that Tesla has returned (though she doesnít initially realize that heís passing for BrŁckner), she goes back to Fleet to enlist his far-from-efficacious aid in combating the supernatural menace. Ultimately, salvation comes from the unlikeliest place of all, as Andreasís human conscience re-asserts itself mere moments before the vampireís victory would have been complete.
The Return of the Vampireís greatest strength is its willingness to experiment with the conventions of the genre. Especially effective is its firm grounding in the current events of its time-- this has got to be the only vampire movie Iíve ever seen in which the Luftwaffe is made to shoulder a share of the blame for the resurrection of the undead villain! I also have to admire Columbiaís audacity in making so transparent a ripoff of Universalís Dracula movies. The latter studio famously had its legal team on a hair trigger, ready to be loosed at the slightest provocation on any filmmaker who dared to infringe upon its copyright prerogatives, so to make a movie like this was a huge gamble on Columbiaís part. Finally, Iíd like to break with my usual pattern, and actually say something nice about Bela Lugosi. His English had improved markedly by the mid-40ís, and his performance here is much better than his star-making turn in Dracula. He also seems less out of place in a movie with as few pretensions as this one, which appears (like Universalís contemporary Son of Dracula) to be perfectly comfortable with its status as a B-picture. Without the forced gravity of Dracula to call attention to his faults, Lugosiís acting seems a bit more natural, and he does an alright job here, even if the advancing years have dulled his charisma a little.