Director: Lew Landers
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Frieda Inescort, Matt Willis
The Return of the Vampire is an important film in my upbringing. It was one of the first horror films that I ever saw, having been inspired by juicy clips from Dracula, The Great Undead(1982), a documentary that showcased a lot of vampire films. This film, with Bela Lugosi as a vampire and a talking werewolf assistant played by Matt Willis, seemed irresistible to my six-year old self and I sought it out, finding it at a flea market for a couple of dollars. I knew as a kid that it wasn't as good as Dracula(1931) or other Universal horrors, but it was entertaining and the atmosphere did allow my young mind to run rampant.
In truth, this B-film is actually fairly admirable. Most reviewers shrug it off as a Universal clone and while it certainly was cashing in on films like Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man(1943), this was actually a stylish and atmospheric picture that managed to better the Universal films of the same era with a relentless pace and a more up to date, real horror feel, as opposed to the neverland of the Universal pictures. This was originally intended as a sequel to Dracula and it certainly plays as one, even picking up after the staking at the conclusion of the Universal film, but Universal would have none of it, so Lugosi is referred to as "Armand Tesla," and the result is a similar, but ultimately, far more sinister characterization than the Count.
The film begins in October, 1918, a month before the end of the Great War. A vampire named Armand Tesla(Bela Lugosi) is feeding on victims in London and is sought after by a scientist, Dr. Walter Saunders(Gilbert Emery) who reads about vampires(from a book written by Tesla, who was an expert on vampires in life!) and decides to stalk and destroy the creature with the help of his assistant, Lady Ainsely(Frieda Inescort, who is more foxier in the opening scenes than I remembered) and they go to a wonderfully, foggy, creepy graveyard where they encounter a werewolf, Andreas(Matt Willis) and the crypt of Tesla, who gets a stake driven through his heart, destroying him and releasing Andreas from his curse, who is taken in as an assistant.
Years later, 1940 to be exact, another war rages and Dr. Saunders has passed on and the vampire plots beyond the grave, having used psychic powers to wreck his airplane and a bombing raid ends up releasing his tomb and soon Bela is on the prowl and Andreas is turned into a werewolf again. Landers(who directed Lugosi in one of his most over the top roles in The Raven(1935) hides Lugosi up to this point and his first appearance is one of the great horror reveals. Lugosi is the very epitome of evil, captured in a low light, with shadows and mist covering him, as he instructs his assistant on his diabolical revenge against those that sought to destroy him.
This a much more menacing vampire than the romantic Dracula and Lugosi's vampire comes across an arrogant, conniving fiend, hell-bent(literally) on vengeance from beyond the grave(again, literally) and I think this performance is actually scarier than his Dracula! However, while he may be more frightening, Matt Willis' werewolf is less successful, looking far less fearsome than Lon Chaney's Wolf Man, and his constant grinning and chuckling paints an almost cuddly character out of Andreas and leads to several questions, starting with, what the hell are those sacks he carries around for the majority of the film, his laundry? It's left unexplained and is pretty odd to watch.
The World War Two setting is nicely used as a means to disguise Lugosi's character as an escaped scientist, fleeing from a concentration camp. Tesla is welcomed into Lady Jane's home and everyone assumes that he is who he says he is, even as he preys on Nina Foch's character Nikki, who is engaged to Jane's son, John(Roland Varno). However, Lady Jane feels something is afoot and seeks the aid of Sir Frederick Fleet(Miles Mander) of Scotland Yard, who does not believe in vampires, naturally, but is somewhat warmer to the idea of werewolves after his men try to apprehend Willis, who transforms and attacks them!
For some reason, however, vampires are still a fantasy to Fleet, even after this discovery.
Well, Tesla almost succeeds in stealing away Nikki and making her his undead bride(this sounds like another movie...) but a timely air raid and the combined backlash from Andreas, causes the vampire's downfall.
First-time viewers will likely be surprised by the graphic ending, which sees not only Willis hammering a stake into Lugosi's chest, but also the vampire's face dissolving in the sunlight! This was pretty gruesome for the time and it's a mystery how this got past the censors, but it did, as does the final bit, with Fleet turning to the audience and asking if we believe in vampires, a sort of steal on what Edward Van Sloan was reportedly to have asked the audience after the play, Dracula("There are such things!")
The Return of the Vampire is a flawed, budget affair, but ultimately comes off as one of the more entertaining of the 40s horrors.Lugosi proves why he will always be regarded as Hollywood's arch-vampire and is truly memorable here, displaying a more evil presence than as Dracula. Likewise, it'd refreshing to see a strong heroine as the lead, and Frieda Inescort is very effective, displaying a level of intelligence and bravery that sets her apart and makes her one of the best classic horror heroes. Her moment with Lugosi as she plays the piano and calmly reveals that she knows his true identity, is a highlight and it's probably the film's best segment. I love the way how she remains so calm, yet clearly there's that tinge of fear, as Lugosi(with wonderfully ghoulish lighting) lingers ominously behind her as a specter of death. Likewise, I enjoy how Lugosi shows a clear attraction to to this intelligent woman, clearly impressed that he, such a supreme evil, has actually been challenged. It's probably one of the best moments of Lugosi's career.
Matt Willis is sympathetic as Andreas, and the makeup is good, but unfortunately, his character is hardly frightening. This same design was later used more effectively in the tense, The Werewolf(1956), which proved this design's potential.
The rest of the cast go through the motions, though the addition of light humor is welcome and not as obtrusive as it was in other contemporary features. I really enjoyed the comic gravediggers and that scene, with them removing the stake from Lugosi, was one of the more memorable moments from any 40s horror film, for me.
Miles Mander is fun as the disbelieving Inspector and Nina Foch makes for a beautiful victim for Lugosi. I also enjoyed Glibert Emery as the Doctor in the beginning, and wished he'd stay longer, but oh well.
Landers directs this film with plenty of atmosphere, with lots of fog and a great graveyard set. It has the look of a great Gothic, only upset by the intrusion of World War Two, which is actually cleverly strewn throughout. This could have been a dated propaganda piece, but instead, the atmosphere of war brings about a feeling of dread that enhances the film and makes a great playing field for a vampire seeking blood, lying undercover amidst a world thrown into chaos.
What sets this apart from most of the Universal horrors, besides the werewolf, is the somber tone and realistic setting. This is less-escapist fantasy, than a grittier form of horror. Not to say that, The Return of the Vampire is such a "dark" picture, but it feels less childish and more aware of itself than many others of the period. Only, The Wolf Man(1941), Son of Dracula(1943) and The Mummy's Ghost(1944) have the same sense of seriousness as this one, at least among straight monster films. Unfortunately, the ending and the werewolf help place this in the kiddie corner and many associate this with something to be viewed at a Saturday matinee. Yes, it's a fun film, but it's also an important one, pushing ever further, the development of the vampire as an evil, sadistic creature and probably aided more in the Lugosi legend, than has been previously been credited. I think it's an underrated film, not a great one, but a picture worth seeing and it offered Bela Lugosi, who in this era of decline, was finding it harder to acquire major studio work. This was his final starring role for a major studio film and it's a shame. He's great in this and i'd go so far to place this as one of the actor's ten essential films.
It's not quite one of the best films of the decade, but it's a notable one and emerges as one of the best Bs that I could recommend to the horror fan seeking something both familiar, yet so ever different. The Return of the Vampire is a wonderful trip back into the world of what we now call, "classic horror."