Expatriate Francis Lederer is a cultured menace in UA’s revisit of the Dracula myth, made just before Hammer Films staked its claim on the horror genre. Avid Hitchcock fans may find the storyline very familiar, when European cousin Bellac strikes up a ‘special’ relationship with his American cousin Rachel.
The Return of Dracula
1958 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 77 min. / Street Date October 18, 2016 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring Francis Lederer, Norma Eberhardt, Ray Stricklyn, Virginia Vincent, John Wengraf.
Cinematography Jack MacKenzie
Film Editor Sherman A. Rose
Original Music Gerald Fried
Written by Pat Fielder
Produced by Arthur Gardner, Jules V. Levy
Directed by Paul Landres
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Levy-Gardner-Laven producing combo, minus Arnold Laven this time out, assemble what was probably their most successful drive-in cheapie for United Artists. Promoting their secretary Pat Fielder to screenwriter, they had already done okay with a contemporary, non-Gothic vampire story given the not-so creative title The Vampire. Perhaps influenced by the success of TV’s ‘Shock Theater’ syndication package of old Universal monsters, they fashioned another contemporary vampire yarn, this time bringing in a quasi-Gothic element in the form of German actor Francis Lederer. A few years later, 1958’s The Return of Dracula was recognized as an unusually sensitive horror thriller, in the wave of new productions inspired by the smash success of Hammer’s Technicolor The Curse of Frankenstein.
Writer Pat Fielder also seems to have been an observant fan of Val Lewton, as she frames her story in everyday middle-class life, and even injects some Lewtonesque moments into the story. A ‘bus’ effect is used when the heroine is startled by a car horn, and in another scene a doomed young woman speaks morbid words as the camera moves into close-up, as in The Seventh Victim. As a kid I remember associating The Return of Dracula with ’50s family-oriented TV shows, when the obvious connection is to Thornton Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 suspense classic Shadow of a Doubt. Instead of a murderous Uncle Charlie arriving in a small town and making a strange connection with his innocent niece, we have the undead Count Bellac attempting a vampiric relationship with his all-American teenage cousin. The parallels are so close that The Return of Dracula can be considered an unacknowledged remake.
Paul Landres’ plain-wrap direction avoids most stylistic touches in the everyday scenes, and goes light on the use of shadows and smoke around Lederer’s Dracula. The film’s strong suit would appear to be its capable cast and Fielder’s well structured screenplay. Oppressed Eastern European artist Bellac Gordal emigrates to America, but Count Dracula (Francis Lederer) murders him en route and assumes his identity. In Carleton, California ‘Bellac’s’ train is met by Cora Mayberry (Greta Granstedt), who hasn’t seen her cousin since they were children. She receives him graciously, while daughter Rachel (Norma Eberhardt) treats him like a celebrity. She prefers her cousin’s gentility over her less glamorous teen boyfriend Tim (Ray Stricklyn). She also accepts Bellac’s avoidance of new people, and his frequent unexplained absences, which include all sunlight hours. Nobody suspects when, at the Parish house where Rachel volunteers, her sickly friend Jennie Blake (Virginia Vincent) dies under mysterious circumstances, ranting about a ‘thing’ that hovers outside her window.
The Return of Dracula is very much a replay of Shadow of a Doubt, right down to the train that brings Bellac to town (although it’s not shown, as the little station is obviously not in service). A government agent tracks Bellac right to Cora’s house, just as in the Hitchcock film. The updating of the familuy situation includes a decidedly non- Leave it to Beaver moment when Rachel and Tim roll around on the living room floor, doing a little bit of making out. I chalk that up to the woman screenwriter. Pat Fielder’s arrangement of an absent father replaced by an ‘evil’ father, might benefit from a feminist reading.
The vampire’s operating principles are a bit more liberal than what was shown in the Universal classics. He can become a bat or a white dog, and he can also make himself invisible. The most atmospheric scenes involve foggy mist, which also suggest that Dracula can transform via vapors, as in Son of Dracula. When at one point his vampire bride needs to leave her crypt, she just dematerializes from inside her coffin, passes through a marble wall, and rematerializes, standing upright, next to her master.
One of the better scenes has the fearless vampire killers led by Inspector Merriman (John Wengraf) witness the return of Dracula’s vampire bride to her crypt before dawn. When they open the tomb and prepare to stake her, it is almost a verbatim repeat of the staking of Lucy in the Hammer classic Horror of Dracula. But Ms. Fielder must have been referencing the Bram Stoker book, as Return preceded Horror of to the theaters by a full month.
(spoiler) Back in the 1960s we fans were informed by Famous Monsters that Return of Dracula had an isolated color shot. When seeing the show televised in B&W in the early ’60s, we assumed that the color scene in question was the spectacular and gory conclusion, with Dracula impaled on a broken mineshaft timber at the bottom of a pit. The color shot we see, apparently hot-spliced into every print, occurs a couple of minutes before that finale. It’s simply an extreme close-up of the stake going into the vampire bride’s body, and blood welling up. Barely more than a second in duration, the insert shot is identical to the impressively gory inserts in Hammer’s Dracula. The color ‘blip’ goes by so fast that 1958 viewers might have thought it subliminal.
Precedents for this kind of color experiment, a color shot or sequence popping up in an otherwise B&W movie, can be found in a string of upscale Albert Lewin pictures from the previous decade — The Moon and Sixpence, The Private Affairs of Bel-Ami and The Picture of Dorian Gray. There’s also the portrait shot in Selznick’s Portrait of Jennie. The use of color is different than the audience cheats seen in American-International’s War of the Colossal Beast and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, where a few seconds of color in the last reel allowed the posters to read, ‘see the monster in COLOR.’ I suppose William Castle’s The Tingler applies as well, although it’s gimmick is more of a legit special effect, than a simple leap from B&W to color..
By the way, I can confirm how the color insert shot was accomplished, editorially speaking: it’s a separate roll of film kept with the printing elements. This means that the color shot had to be hot-spliced by hand into every original release print of The Return of Dracula. Projectionists must have jumped when it clacked through the gate.
(still spoiler) But The Return of Dracula’s sensational impaling finish ended up being used many times in Hammer’s Dracula series — Chris Lee found himself impaled on stakes, crosses, wagon wheel spokes. Given his bad luck in this regard, Hammer’s Dracula would have been well advised to avoid proximity to anything made of wood.
Horror fans know Francis Lederer from this movie and the Philippine Terror is a Man, but he had been playing handsome foreigners in Hollywood comedies and dramas since the 1930s. He had long ago attained a different kind of immortality opposite Louise Brooks in G. W. Pabst’s silent tragedy Pandora’s Box. Lederer wasn’t the most expressive actor but his subtle take on Dracula is fairly original. So are some of his ‘undead pep talks’ to the clueless Rachel, preparing her for a glorious eternity free of death:
“That’s right there is no reflection. Flesh is an illusion. The heart beats only when it is drunk with blood.”
“There is only one reality Rachel, death. I come to bring you death, a living death. Are you afraid? No. I bring the darkness of centuries past and centuries to come, eternal life and eternal death.”
The movie is odd politically; instead of feeling sympathy for those trapped behind the Iron Curtain, we’re encouraged to think that immigrants might be horrid monsters like Dracula. We also wonder how Inspector Merriman, a foreign cop, can just drift into Carleton and casually enlist authority figures like priests and the sheriff in his anti-vampire sleuthing.
The production doesn’t follow through with some of writer Pat Fielder’s good ideas, but overtones persist in the final product. Aspiring dress designer Rachel’s Halloween dress turns out to be a pretty makeshift affair, and there’s a disconnect between her supposedly impressive winning costume for an old lady at the Parish Halloween party, and the dress we’re actually shown. The Halloween costume does give Rachel a long, flowing dress more in keeping with gothic tradition. But the detail of a seamstress’s daughter taking up sewing connects with mundane American reality. Before Big Box stores sold low-grade clothing so cheaply that sewing became the more expensive option, less-than-prosperous teens often made some of their own clothing. Thirty years later, The Silence of the Lambs connected rural economic decay with a kind of horror-despair. Only Rachel’s beauty separates her from the more naturalistic, hope-challenged rural teens of Jonathan Demme’s film, like the girl with bad teeth, bad hair and a depressingly low self-esteem.
Director Paul Landres is a trifle stiff with the actors but gives the film a decent sense of flow. Although much of the action is strictly ’50s cornball, all of the ‘horror’ scenes land in the plus column. The trapping of the government agent at the railroad station is stylistically artless, yet saved by its image of a white-robed Jennie calling to him from a distance down the tracks. Norma Eberhardt doesn’t give Rachel a great deal of depth, but her earnest emotions are honest enough. When she’s possessed and rattling off defeatist, death-loving dialogue, we really begin to get worried for her. Lederer’s sly Dracula comes off a potential child molester, inviting Rachel to join his harem of undead brides. The ‘romantic’ vampire of Son of Dracula at least had romantic notions: Bellac treats women as completely expendable. The Return of Dracula remains interesting for its sincerity of approach. Just one month later the genre vampires would embrace Gothic grandeur in Hammer’s Technicolor record-breaker, which in 1958 did for horror what The 7th Voyage of Sinbad did for fantasy.
The Return of Dracula was originally co-billed with the micro-budgeted science fiction The Flame Barrier, from the same production company, with the same director and co-screenwriter. It would seem that Gramercy spent most of its money on its other three pictures for United Artists, leaving Flame Barrier to be made for next to nothing. These days it’s not easy to see.
The Olive Films Blu-ray of The Return of Dracula is an excellent encoding of this nostalgic favorite. The B&W is rich and detailed, and the improved contrast helps us see what’s going on in under-lit scenes. The correct widescreen aspect ratio helps to better frame the mostly unexciting compositions; few scenes are staged in any kind of depth. The mists and smoke are used well, especially in close-ups of Bellac’s vampire bride in her sealed coffin — the smoke signals the presence of vampiric magic, I suppose.
Gerald Fried’s stomping music orchestrations seem appropriate enough; thanks to this show I realized that “Dies Irae” is often quoted whenever a composer wants to suggest a moment of evil in a film score. The moodily effective quieter sections appear to incorporate low humming notes into the mix here and there, which push a feeling of disquietude. This also reminds me a bit of the much-later The Silence of the Lambs, which layered its soundtrack with low-register industrial hums and noise for psychological effect.
The Return of Dracula makes ample use of Bronson Caverns, a Hollywood location just a few minutes from Grauman’s Chinese. Rachel’s brother is first introduced running down a familiar hill — it’s the hill that Miles Bennell runs up at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Several shots use a different angle to show characters approaching Bellac’s cave. if the camera position were more to the right, we’d be looking at the Hollywood Sign.
Olive includes an original trailer that uses the camera setup for the main titles, with Bellac in silhouette and his eyes lit up, Bela Lugosi-style. Over Paul Frees’ voice-of-doom narration, text assures us that the film isn’t a reissue from the 1930s: “The most horrifying thrill in the history of motion pictures! The most terrifying name in the history of the world! Brand new! All new!”
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Return of Dracula Blu-ray rates:
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 23, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson