The Vampire Strikes Back
The Return of Dracula
(aka Curse of Dracula
aka The Fantastic Disappearing Man)
USA 1958 Directed by Paul Landre
Midnite Movies (20th Century Fox variant) Region 1
Spoilers: This review contains blood vessel
busting spoilers that may clog up yer arteries.
Well now... I wasn’t expecting a whole lot from The Return Of Dracula but what I did get was an unsurprisingly underrated little gem. I’ll get to why the “unsurprisingly” in a minute. Stay with me.
Directed by Paul Landre, The Return Of Dracula has much to recommend in it. It opens with a Dragnet style voice over narrative which, with its in-built silliness, still does nothing to spoil the intense atmosphere as some cars speed to a morgue and a team of sanctioned vampire hunters go to kill Count Dracula... only to find he has slipped from their tenacious grasp. He has, in fact, killed and taken the identity of a fellow countryman, Bellac Gordal, and taken a train to small town, suburban America to stay with the relatives of his latest victim... who happen to be unable to recognise the original Bellac.
The atmosphere is genuinely chilling due to the intensity and bleakness of the crisp black and white photography and this, pitched against the fifties homespun nuclear family, the kind you’d see on sit coms and westerns on TV around about then, gives the movie a wonderful frisson it may not have had in such abundance without this uneasy juxtaposition.
Francis Lederer, who some of my readers may remember from such films as the original G. W. Pabst version of Wedekind’s Lulu plays, Pandora’s Box, is absolutely fascinating to watch as the manipulative Count Dracula. He is, according to the government cell trying to locate him and his kind, looking to set up shop stateside and spawn a new following in the US... I’m wondering now as I’m typing this if Dracula in this movie actually represents communism in the context of when this movie was made. The point is... Lederer is absolutely hypnotic in the role of Dracula and it’s a shame that this movie didn’t spawn a series of progressively inventive sequels like the Hammer version which came out not long after this one in the same year and which helped put Christopher Lee on movie goers maps.
Talking of which... this is the reason why I suspect this film was mostly overlooked when it was initially released. Hammer’s Dracula (aka Horror of Dracula) was an all colour shocker and, while not particularly bloodier than a couple of sequences in this movie, caught the publics attention in much the same way that Hammer’s The Curse Of Frankenstein had the same year. And I suspect the goriness (which is relatively mild) in the Frankenstein movie, and the fact that Hammer had a similarly styled Dracula movie coming out in ‘58, may have somewhat influenced certain sequences in The Return Of Dracula.
To explain... now I suppose it could be a no-sex-in-the-USA censorship issue but whenever the title character moves in for a bit of neck nipping, the scene goes dark and transitions to another place... and I guess everyone is just supposed to know what is going on. Better hope the 1958 audience is sufficiently “up” on their vampire lore, I guess, because there are not even any neck bites on any of the victims after these sequences. I figured they were shying away from the gore... until I watched the last ten minutes of the film. During the end sequence, this particularly charismatic Dracula falls down a mineshaft and impales himself on a handy and convenient wooden stake. The black blood welling out his front is quite implicit... although why the geezah didn’t just transform himself into a bat on the fall down and flutter out of harm’s way is anyones guess.
But this is nothing in the gore stakes compared to a shot from a few minutes earlier which occurred in the original release prints of this movie and which has been restored (unheralded, so this scene took me completely by surprise) for the Midnite Movies DVD presentation. Dracula has made a blind girl his undead minion and our intrepid cell of international vampire hunting authoritarians (aka the Van Helsing substitute and his colleagues) are laying in wait for her to return to her coffin just before sunrise. She does so and our heroes drive a stake through her heart... for a few seconds we get a shot of blood spurting up from her wooden pierced chest and the film-makers have coloured the blood up to a bubbling bright red, which in contrast to the black and white of the surrounding area of the shot and the lack of any gore in the film leading up to this moment, gives the sequence a visceral impact much similar to seeing Hitchcock’s Spellbound with the extra frames of red at the end of the movie. It also lends a little "Lars Von Trier does Europa" atmosphere to the proceedings. I suspect these extra gory sequences were probably a direct response to Hammer’s initial impact on the state of horror films on an international audience.
The other big strength of this movie.... asides from the stark black and white photography and Francis Lederer’s brilliant portrayal of a vampire abroad... is Gerald Fried’s amazing and pounding, atmospheric score which also quotes the Dies Irae, something which would become a popular melody to quote within the genre and which most people would recognise these days as being woven into the opening title music of Stanley Kubrik’s The Shining. This score really helps give the whole thing an edge and Gerald Fried is another one of those talented composers who perhaps didn’t get the exposure and recognition he deserved.
Anyone who likes watching those old 30s and 40s Universal Horror movies is probably going to appreciate the pacing and atmosphere of this movie. And the curious mix of 50s suburb and chilling, gothic, smouldering dread is absolutely perfect. Don’t miss out on this one.