Saturday 27 October 2012

The Return Of The Vampire

Tesla Foil

The Return Of The Vampire
USA 1944
Directed by Lew Landers
Columbia Region 1

I can’t believe it’s taken me until now to have even heard of this film or get access to it. Thanks to Hypnogoria for bringing it to my attention with a posting of the movie poster.

Made in 1944, just when Universal were getting towards the end of their second wind with their successful box office monsters, The Return Of The Vampire was supposed to be Columbia Pictures direct sequel to the original Tod Browning version of Dracula. However, when Universal did the obvious thing and threatened to sue, Columbia just changed the names of some of the characters, altering what would have been Bela Lugosi’s second shot at Dracula into the more ‘electrical’ sounding Armand Tesla. That being said, he plays him just like Dracula in this, and pretty much in the same costume. It wouldn’t be for another four years before he would actually play Dracula again, this time in comedy monster-mash up Bud Abbot & Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein.

The film starts off in 1918, where a talking and very eloquent wolfman goes to wake his master, Count Tesla, from his sleepy-time coffin. Tesla has already left one person dead in the hands of Dr. Walter Saunders (played by Gilbert Emory) and his assistant Lady Jane Ainsley (played by Frieda Inescort), who both seem to live together in the same house with their respective son and daughter (I’m assuming these two aren’t an actual family unit, due to the son and daughter getting married when they grow up). While the doctor in question reads an interesting book on supernatural lore, ignores his blinded, scientific mind and realises this was a vampire attack, Tesla bites the neck of his little girl, sending her into a coma requiring blood transfusions.

It surprised me a little, not knowing this film was starting on an extended prologue (and since the opening is a good ten or fifteen minutes long) to see the good doctor and Lady Ainsley stake Lugosi’s character through the heart. This breaks the werewolf’s curse from the man called Andreas, who in the intervening years becomes Lady Ainsley’s assistant when the good doctor has died. Lugosi is buried with the stake through his heart and left to his death... but somehow, I knew the movie wouldn’t really be over in a quarter of an hour.

Cut forward to the second World War and an air raid leaves the cemetery where Tesla is buried in turmoil. Two comic, British character actors find Tesla with a stake through his heart and, assuming it’s debris from the bomb, remove it before reburying him in a patch of ground. Of course, once the stake has been removed, Tesla is once more the undead vampire of years ago, ready to take revenge on the family that put him to rest.

Now then. Movie legend in some historical tomes has always been quite quick to say that the first imagery of an undead, or living dead (if you prefer) creature rising from the bowels of the earth is of the zombies in George A Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead. And for many years people have been arguing that the first imagery of undead creatures rising up from the soil is of the more traditional zombie creatures in Hammer’s The Plague Of The Zombies. And for years I have been saying that the first imagery I know of this occurrence is from one of the two Universal Mummy movies made in 1944 (the fifth or sixth in the series), either The Mummy’s Ghost or The Mummy’s Curse (I forget which one). However, since this film, The Return Of The Vampire, was released on January 1st of the same year, I’d have to say that the image of Bela Lugosi’s hands pushing its way out of the earth in this one is, so far, the earliest version of this phenomenon I have seen.

Of course, once Tesla is back in the game, the young child who has grown up (to be played by Nina Foch) is now, once more, under Tesla’s watchful spell. As is Andreas, his rejuvenated werewolf companion (the make-up job on Andreas, which is pretty good, was reused later for The Werewolf, reviewed here). From here on in it’s pretty much a straight remake of Dracula, with a bit of unbelieving police inspector and comedy policemen thrown in for good measure. But you know what? This is a pretty good movie.

I love the Universal monster movies and have found other studio’s films of the time, especially those retreading Dracula, to be quite dull and lifeless in comparison to their Universal counterparts (I might mention the much loved Mark Of The Vampire as being particularly witless and inscrutable in this respect). The only rival they had, for me, are the excellent Val Lewton RKO movies from the same period. This one, however, really is on a par with the best of the Universal monster movies in regards to everything you would want from these films. A bunch of actors taking it seriously, Lugosi reading his lines phonetically (he never really learned the English language and so had to learn all his lines in this fashion... but it kinda works for some of the characters he played), excellent gothic style lighting and a Universal style selection of wrought, pseudo gothic underscore by a composer, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, who I’ve never heard of but would like to know better... he gets those fake Salter & Skinner stings just right!

But it’s also got the background of the second war and various found footage of that in it, plus the bizarre shot of a topless Big Ben I’ve mentioned in one or two reviews before (my theory is a model was built to shoot the clock face from and then it was shot further back than the model had been built for... then re-used as a stock insert by everybody and their dog’s movies) and, as far as I can make out in my research, the first ever shot of a disintegrating vampire, melting exactly the same kind of way that Christopher Lee would do many years later (I’m not counting the original Nosferatu as that’s a different and less graphic kind of effect and target)... which is pretty strong and graphic stuff for the time, actually. I’m wondering if this movie ran into trouble with the censors in this country at the time and had to be judiciously snipped.

And did I mention it’s got a talking werewolf? The screen's first and last?

I guess you have to be of a particular mind set to watch these kinds of movies but I know there are a lot of people out there who, like me, love their Universal Monsters fix. If you’re one of them, then you owe it to yourself to give this film a bit of a watch. It really does stand head and shoulders with other classic Universal vampire movies like Dracula’s Daughter and Son Of Dracula.

And you noted it’s got a talking werewolf, right?

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