Friday, October 9, 2009

The Return of the Vampire (Columbia, 1943, rel. 1944)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I did run Charles a movie — a short one, The Return of the Vampire from 1944, directed by Lew Landers and written by Griffin Jay from an “idea” by Kurt Neumann — the “idea” apparently having been to come as close as possible to a total ripoff of Bram Stoker’s Dracula without bringing the Universal legal department on top of Columbia, this film’s producing studio, for doing so. Had Neumann also written the actual screenplay this would have been a better movie — some of Jay’s lines were wince-inducing and provoked Charles to Mystery Science Theatre 3000-type comments — but at least it had Bela Lugosi as the vampire (called “Armand Tesla” and depicted as a Rumanian mad scientist who had got so obsessed with studying vampires and vampirism that after his death he became a vampire himself — as I joked to Charles, “He’s a mad scientist and his name is ‘Tesla’? This is too easy!”), Miles Mander in the Edward van Sloan role as the fearless vampire hunter (actually a Scotland Yard police chief who was initially skeptical but was won over to the cause of the vampire’s existence), Matt Willis in the Dwight Frye role (in a move to update the story, he was shown transforming into a werewolf whenever he was under Lugosi’s spell — and, interestingly, the transformations were actually more visually convincing than the ones Universal was putting Lon Chaney, Jr. through at the same time!) and interesting distaff performances from Frieda Inescort as the heroine and Nina Foch (her presence in a film like this is a distinct example of overqualification!) as her mother-in-law, who first slew Tesla (with the traditionally approved stake through the heart) in 1918 only to have him revived when his grave was blasted open in 1941 during a German air raid on London. (Since this was a wartime film, the link between the two world wars and the use of the Blitz as a backdrop gave it topicality.)

The Return of the Vampire also featured a musical score by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, a man with a major reputation as a classical composer (though Charles was amused by the idea that anyone would be named “New Castle Germany”!) — it’s a marginally more complex score than the norm for one of these movies, though still pretty much your standard-issue horror-cliché music. In fact, that pretty much sums up this whole movie: a bit better than the B-horror average (with superb atmospheric photography by L. W. O’Connell and some nice moving-camera shots worked out by O’Connell and Landers) and welcome as one of Lugosi’s surprisingly few vampire roles on film (he made just five — Dracula, The Mark of the Vampire, Return of the Vampire, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire — and the last two, as their titles suggest, were comic spoofs of the horror genre). — 9/29/98


The Return of the Vampire is a 1943 film from Columbia (released and copyrighted on New Year’s Day, 1944) that starred Bela Lugosi in a story that was originally intended by its writers, Kurt Neumann (story) and Griffin Jay (script), as a direct sequel to Dracula. When the Universal legal department found out that Columbia was planning an unauthorized sequel to one of their most prestigious (and closely guarded) horror properties, they wrote a letter to Columbia threatening a plagiarism suit if the project continued. No problem; producer Sam White simply had Neumann and Jay change the names of their characters, so Lugosi’s role became “Dr. Armand Tesla” (the parallel to the real-life scientist Dr. Nikola Tesla, who in the latter part of his life devoted his considerable genius to trying to prove, scientifically, the existence of the supernatural was probably deliberate), a scientist who lived in Eastern Europe 200 years before and became so obsessed with vampires that he wrote a book about them (quoted extensively in the film) and ultimately became a vampire himself after his death — a gimmick Neumann and Jay may have ripped off Fred Myton’s script for PRC’s own Dracula knock-off, Dead Men Walk, the year before.

The film opens with a prologue set in 1918, the last year of World War I, in which Dr. Walter Saunders (Gilbert Emery, playing essentially the same role Edward Van Sloan had in the 1930 Universal Dracula) and his assistant, Lady Jane Ainsley (Frieda Inescort, wearing a severe dark haircut that gives her a striking resemblance to Ayn Rand) run Tesla down to earth, trace him to his coffin and drive a stake through his heart. Tesla had a werewolf assistant, Andreas Obry (a rather miscast Matt Willis — he’s too ordinary a character-actor type to be credible as a being who undergoes a wrenching supernatural transformation under Tesla’s mind control), who’s sort of the Renfield of this story; over the next 22 years Ainsley works with him at the sanitarium she runs and eventually gets him to overcome his lycanthropic proclivities and achieve a productive career as her assistant. Flash-forward to 1940; by this time Dr. Saunders is dead but his granddaughter Nicki (Nina Foch) I dating Ainsley’s son John (Roland Varno), who gave up his career as an orchestra conductor to enlist in World War II but is returning to work since he was mustered out due to service-related injuries. Jane Ainsley’s friend Sir Frederick Fleet (Miles Mander), commissioner of Scotland Yard, reads Dr. Saunders’ newly discovered manuscript telling how the two of them killed Tesla, and explains to Jane that if she drove a stake through the heart of a living human, she may be liable for murder charges.

Fleet says he’s going to get a court order to have Tesla’s body exhumed to see if he was still alive when the stake was driven through him, but before that can happen a German bombing raid strikes the graveyard where Tesla was buried and brings his corpse to light, whereupon two civil defense workers cleaning up the gravesite remove the stake (thinking it’s a bit of shrapnel lodged in Tesla’s corpse) and, of course, set the vampire free. From then on the film becomes a quest for revenge on Tesla’s part, following the familiar contours of the Dracula plot as he goes after the people he blames for the lost 22 years of his un-life, striking at Lady Jane by putting the bite on her son and his fiancée (he’d already attacked her when she was still a child during the prologue sequence). He also re-enslaves Andreas, turning him back into a werewolf (some commentators objected to the fact that Andreas’ lycanthropy had nothing to do with the phases of the moon, but the writers here were clearly drawing on a different version of the werewolf legend in which it was the vampire’s will, not a full moon, that changed Andreas from man to wolf) and forcing him to run deadly errands for him — including carrying around a mysterious package — until the very end, when another opportune German bombing raid blasted open Tesla’s coffin during the daylight and thereby evaporated him. (One commentator said this was the first time a vampire literally “disappeared” on screen, though I think Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr anticipated this scene.)

What’s frustrating about The Return of the Vampire is that it’s a movie with a lot of promise, and many things that do go right — the direction by the usually hacky Lew Landers (who’d worked with Lugosi before on the 1935 Universal film The Raven, with Boris Karloff) actually stages some scenes with effective Gothic atmosphere; there’s some good Caligari-esque stylization in the sets by Lionel Banks and Victor Greene (especially the exteriors); the bookending of the vampire’s tale by the two world wars and the direct use of the Blitz as a plot device quite cleverly rendered the story more topical than it would have been otherwise (though Neumann and Jay could have done more with the idea of a vampire dealing out death in a country under heavy bombing attack in which lots of people were dying for perfectly logical reasons — it would have been interesting to have Tesla’s attacks concealed by the death toll from the bomb raids, but that’s probably not a place American filmmakers wanted to go in a movie made while World War II was still going on and set in an allied country); and The Return of the Vampire appears to be the first horror movie ever made in which both a vampire and a werewolf appear on screen as characters. Universal wouldn’t do that until House of Frankenstein, released 11 months later; and in that regard this film anticipates not only the later films in the Universal Frankenstein cycle but the modern Underworld movies as well.

Where the film goes wrong is in giving us so little of Bela Lugosi — we don’t see him at all until 23 minutes into a 69-minute film (though we hear snatches of his voice before that) and he has probably less than 10 minutes of screen time all told; in Matt Willis’s risible appearance as the werewolf (with crudely jutting-out ears that might be closer to a real wolf’s ears than the ones on Jack Pierce’s werewolf makeup for Lon Chaney, Jr. at Universal, but help the makeup evoke laughs instead of fright); in the plodding writing and direction of the non-vampire scenes; and in Nina Foch’s surprisingly incompetent performance as Nicki. Though none of the Dracula films (or their knockoffs) have featured a performance by the actress playing the vampire’s main distaff victim anywhere near the quality Agnes Moorehead brought to this role in Orson Welles’ 1938 Dracula radio broadcast — with just her voice, she managed to capture the attraction as well as the repulsion of vampire-dom better than any actress on screen (though Louise Allbritton in Robert Siodmak’s near-masterpiece, Son of Dracula, from Universal in 1943, is quite good in a different conception of the character as someone actually attracted to vampirism by its promise of eternal life — a premise less Bram Stoker and more Anne Rice than we’re used to in a 1940’s movie) — Foch is so dull in her part that Helen Chandler in the 1930 Dracula looks like a great actress by comparison.

One of the biggest retrospective surprises of Bela Lugosi’s career is that, for all his identification with the role of Dracula both during his lifetime (he was regularly interrupting his film career to make money touring with the stage version) and since, he only played vampires five times — and only two of those films, Dracula and The Return of the Vampire, portrayed the character entirely seriously. The 1935 MGM film The Mark of the Vampire — directed by Tod Browning with far more energy and atmosphere than he’d brought to the Lugosi Dracula five years earlier — cheated at the end by having Lugosi’s character turn out to be, not a bona fide vampire, but an actor playing a vampire in a scheme by police chief Lionel Barrymore to trap a murderer into confessing; and Lugosi’s last two vampire movies, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) and Mother Riley Meets the Vampire (1952), were out-and-out spoofs. (I’ve sometimes joked that it would be interesting to double-bill Universal’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man from 1943, in which Lugosi played the Monster, with Boris Karloff’s only vampire part, the 1964 Italian film Black Sabbath, just for the spectacle of the two greatest horror actors of the sound era each playing the role most associated with the other.) — 10/9/09