CineSavant contributor and advisor Gary Teetzel revisits a film he reviewed for us seventeen years ago. Instead of continuing to play his greatest role for Universal, Bela Lugosi ‘returns’ as a generic vampire in a very Dracula-like tale for Columbia. He’s still the best fiend for the role. The show introduces a novel demise for Lugosi’s creature of the undead, plus a furry-faced werewolf to compete with Universal’s Wolf Man… a werewolf that talks.
The Return of the Vampire
1943 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 69 min. / Street Date February 19, 2019 / 27.99
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Frieda Inescort, Nina Foch, Roland Varno, Miles Mander, Matt Willis, Ottola Nesmith, Gilbert Emery.
Cinematography: L.W. O’Connell, John Stumar
Film Editor: Paul Borofsky
Original Music: Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco
Written by Griffin Jay, Randall Faye, Kurt Neumann
Produced by Sam White
Directed by Lew Landers
Reviewed by Gary Teetzel
For Bela Lugosi, Hollywood’s return to making horror films in 1939 after a two-year hiatus proved something of a mixed blessing. It provided the actor with steady employment until the late 1940s, but the roles were generally unrewarding and unworthy of his talents. This period of Lugosi’s career began promisingly, with the unforgettable role of Ygor in Universal’s big-budget Son of Frankenstein. Barely recognizable under Jack Pierce’s makeup, he stole the show with one of his very best performances. In spite of this, Universal clearly regarded Boris Karloff as a more bankable name, and when Karloff departed Hollywood for Broadway and Arsenic and Old Lace, the studio chose to promote Lon Chaney Jr. as their new horror star and relegated Lugosi to small supporting parts. Roles at the other major studios were few, and usually consisted of appearing as a menace in weak scare comedies like The Gorilla, You’ll Find Out and Zombies On Broadway. With only one or two exceptions, Lugosi would receive top billing only at lowly PRC and Monogram. His career sank to embarrassing new lows in dreary offerings like The Corpse Vanishes and The Ape Man.
Columbia’s 1943 chiller The Return of the Vampire is thus something of a rarity from this period: a respectably-budgeted (compared to Monogram) horror film from a major studio with Lugosi given star billing. With plenty of spooky atmosphere, a talented cast and a werewolf added for extra fun, the film would appear to have all the ingredients needed for a horror classic. It falls short of its goals, but Scream Factory’s attractive new Blu-ray provides horror fans with a good opportunity to savor its best qualities.
The story begins with an extended prologue in 1918 London. Professor Walter Saunders (Gilbert Emery) and fellow scientist Lady Jane Ainsley (Frieda Inescort) determine that a series of mysterious deaths are the work of a vampire, Armand Tesla (Bela Lugosi). After Tesla menaces the Professor’s young granddaughter Nicki, the two scientists track the fiend to its lair and drive a metal spike through his heart. Tesla’s death frees Andreas Obry (Matt Willis), his werewolf slave, and restores his humanity. Grateful for his release from the vampire’s spell, Andreas becomes Lady Jane’s loyal assistant.
Years later, during a WW2 air raid, a German bomb unearths Tesla’s body. Two Civil Defense workers mistake the metal spike in his chest for a bomb fragment and remove it, returning the vampire to life. Tesla soon re-enslaves Andreas, and with the werewolf’s help assumes the identity of Dr. Hugo Bruckner, a scientist fleeing Nazi-controlled Europe. Moving unsuspected through London society, Tesla plots revenge against Lady Jane by seeking to destroy her loved ones, starting with the now-grown Nicki Saunders (Nina Foch), fiancée of Lady Jane’s son John (Roland Varno).
Since Universal was considered the industry leader in the horror field, Columbia set out to make The The Return of the Vampire as ‘Universal-like’ as possible. The story is a variation on Dracula (filmed by Universal in 1931), with Lady Jane as a distaff Van Helsing and Andreas as a lycanthropic Renfield. (Universal’s The Wolf Man had been a huge hit when it opened in December 1941.) To ensure the proper look and mood, key positions in the cast and crew were filled by Universal veterans. Lugosi, of course, had long been associated with the studio. Supporting players Miles Mander, Billy Bevan and Gilbert Emery all had Universal chillers on their resumes. Screenwriter Griffin Jay had penned some of the studio’s worst horror outings, including The Mummy’s Tomb and Captive Wild Woman, and helmer Lew Landers had directed Lugosi and Karloff in The Raven under his original name, Louis Friedlander.
Unfortunately, The The Return of the Vampire’s stubborn adherence to the well-worn Universal formula makes the film feel all too familiar. The story holds few surprises, so there is little suspense. Landers dutifully employs the familiar Universal visual style — lots of fog, chiaroscuro lighting, etc. — but brings little innovation to the film. One touch that does work is having Tesla able to transform into a mist, like Dracula in Stoker’s novel. When the ‘Tesla mist’ completely envelops young Nicki in the prologue, it’s genuinely creepy, suggesting innocence smothered by corruption. Overall, though, Landers’ direction is seldom better than workmanlike.
Griffin Jay’s screenplay deserves an even larger share of the blame for the film’s shortcomings. Far too much screen time is devoted to Lady Jane trying to convince skeptical Scotland Yard Commissioner Sir Frederick Fleet (Miles Mander) that vampires and werewolves are real. Scene after scene features Fleet refusing to accept the evidence before him and acting exasperated — although not as exasperated as the audience. Lady Jane never takes adequate precautions to protect her family from the vampire, and comes across as a little dim for failing to recognize Tesla. Granted, she only saw him once years before, but one would think that encountering an honest-to-gosh vampire would make a mighty strong impression!
John Ainsley — the Jonathan Harker character — is set up to be the young romantic hero, but he never gets a chance to be either romantic or heroic. About two-thirds of the way through the film he collapses from a vampire bite, and spends most of the rest of the time in bed. [Major Spoilers] All of the film’s heroes are strangely absent from the film’s climax, in which Andreas recalls Lady Jane’s good influence, turns against Tesla and destroys him while he himself is dying. It would have been more dramatically satisfying for Lady Jane to be present and make a direct appeal to Andreas’ better nature. As written, the climax makes the heroes appear ineffectual. [end of spoilers]
One aspect of the production that does not disappoint is its star attraction, Bela Lugosi. Playing a genuine vampire for the first time since Dracula, he delivers one of his best performances of the 1940s. Sometimes criticized for broad, hammy playing, Lugosi’s work here is more restrained. Instead of the florid gesticulating of some of his mad scientist characters, Lugosi uses stillness as a key part of his characterization. When not masquerading as Bruckner, Tesla often appears nearly motionless, issuing commands from afar to Andreas or Nicki. The vampire thus seems less like an ordinary, physical man, and more like an otherworldly force. A hint of Tesla’s former humanity may remain, but Lugosi makes him a villain who has embraced his dark destiny, and advances his evil schemes with cold, deliberate calculation. His voice, the instrument of his supernatural influence, conveys a quiet sense of power and authority. Lugosi exudes such a strong screen presence that he dominates the film, even though the script gives him frustratingly little screen time.
To fully appreciate Lugosi’s talent, one merely has to compare Lugosi’s work here against Lon Chaney Jr.’s performance in Universal’s rival 1943 vampire film, Son of Dracula. The beefy Chaney comes across as hopelessly miscast, unable to imbue his dialogue with the uncanny eeriness and imperious command that Lugosi brought to the King of the Undead. Chaney is about as spooky as the average TV horror movie host, and he seriously damages a film that is otherwise superior to The Return of the Vampire, with a more imaginative story and better direction (by Robert Siodmak). There’s a reason why Lugosi remains the definitive screen Dracula in the minds of many.
The rest of the cast does the best they can with the weak material. As Lady Jane Ainsley, Frieda Inescort is stuck delivering endless exposition, but manages to make it sound natural and unforced. Female scientists became a cliché in the ‘fifties but were rare in the ‘forties, and Lady Jane could have been an interesting character had the script bothered to develop her personality. Inescort’s best scene is a showdown with Lugosi in the Ainsley home. As Tesla drops the Bruckner pose and confronts her with his true identity and motives, Lady Jane sits calmly at an organ, showing not an ounce of fear — then suddenly reveals a hidden cross that repels the vampire. Inescort holds her own against Lugosi here, and it’s too bad the film doesn’t give her more chances to display that strength of character. As Lady Jane’s future daughter-in-law, the talented Nina Foch gets little opportunity to exercise her abilities. She gives a nicely subtle performance in a scene in which, under Tesla’s influence, she speaks of her love of the night and the ‘soft, lovely darkness.’ Alas, the scene is over all too soon. The climax reduces her to an unconscious lump of baggage lugged around by Tesla and Andreas.
Matt Willis, a character actor who usually played bit parts, is prominently featured as Tesla’s werewolf slave Andreas. Nicely dressed, fairly well groomed and able to speak, Andreas is not a particularly frightening monster. He only acts ferocious in one brief scene in which he transforms in front of two startled policemen. For some odd reason, Andreas is frequently shown with a bundle under one arm. In one scene the bundle has Dr. Bruckner’s clothes and effects so Tesla can assume the scientist’s identity, but what of the other times? Is Tesla constantly sending Andreas out to pick up his laundry? (One can imagine Lugosi’s familiar voice intoning, ‘Remember, Andreas . . . plenty of starch in the collars!’) Overall, he comes across as part errand boy, part faithful dog. Some fans have complained that he looks more cute than scary, but the werewolf makeup is adequate, even if no match for Jack Pierce’s work at Universal. Unfortunately, the transformation effects are hurt by Willis’ tendency to move during the lap dissolves. Possibly cast for his slight resemblance to Lon Chaney Jr., Willis is able to convey a measure of Andreas’ diabolical glee in following the orders of his master, but is less successful in scenes meant to show his guilt over betraying Lady Jane. (After The Wolf Man, Hollywood assumed all werewolves must be guilt-ridden and tormented.) A limited actor, Willis returned to small roles after The The Return of the Vampire. Rounding out the principal cast, Miles Mander gives a standard ‘stuffy Englishman’ performance as Sir Frederick Fleet, Roland Varno is colorless as John Ainsley, and Gilbert Emery is hopelessly wooden as Professor Saunders. In a bit part as one of the Civil Defense workers, Mack Sennett alumnus Billy Bevan gives a performance strongly reminiscent of his comic turn as a bobby in Dracula’s Daughter.
Production values are modest but adequate. The cinematography, credited to both L.W. O’Connell and John Stumar, is solidly professional and sets the proper mood, but is content to stick to the established horror film aesthetic of the era without bringing anything fresh to the visuals. The limited special effects are variable: a miniature depicting Lady Jane’s house looks like a toy, but Tesla’s gooey disintegration is surprising and very effective. The score by noted composer and music teacher (Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams and Henry Mancini were among his students) Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco has some nicely eerie passages, but tends to sound dated.
Scream Factory’s Blu-ray of The Return of the Vampire is a handsome presentation that deserves a place on the shelves of every Lugosi fan. The HD transfer is a beauty, with an excellent contrast range and detail crisp enough to count the hairs on Andreas’ furry face. No damage is present save some very minor white speckling. The mono sound reflects the limitations of the era, but is clear and distortion-free. English is the only option for both audio and subtitles. The only place where the presentation can be faulted is the back of the packaging, which prominently features a photo of Lugosi from Return of the Ape Man!
Columbia’s 2002 DVD release of the film was a no-frills affair, but Scream Factory delivers a generous helping of extras for classic horror aficionados. There are three highly informative audio commentaries, each focusing on different aspects of the film. Lugosiphile extraordinaire Gary Don Rhodes, author of several books on the star, covers the film’s genesis and production, and all things Bela-related. On his track, Troy Howarth covers some of the same ground, but devotes most of his time to a more in-depth look at the other members of the cast and crew, nicely complementing Rhodes’ commentary. Lee Gambin somewhat awkwardly rushes through a reading of an essay on 1940’s werewolf movies written for his book The Howling: Studies In the Horror Film. Clearly worried about squeezing it all in during the film’s relatively brief runtime (70 minutes), Gambin ends up finishing a few minutes early.
In addition to the trio of commentaries, Scream Factory has included the silent 8mm digest version of the film, released back in the days when most movie buffs could only dream of owning complete copies of their favorites. An image gallery holds an extensive selection of stills and promotional materials. Surprisingly, many of the posters and ads highlight the werewolf over Lugosi; was Columbia uncertain of Bela’s drawing power, or simply exploiting the success of The Wolf Man? Rounding out the extras is a heavily-compressed version of the theatrical trailer that looks like a bad YouTube encode.
The The Return of the Vampire is too derivative and poorly written to be considered a top-drawer genre classic. But for horror fans, the presence of Lugosi and the cozily familiar, fog-laden atmosphere are enough to ensure repeated viewings, and the extras will offer fascinating insight into the movie. For them, this disc is warmly recommended.
Reviewed by Gary Teetzel
The Return of the Vampire
Video: Very Good
Supplements: Three commentaries: Lee Gambin, Troy Howarth, Gary Don Rhodes; 8mm digest version, still gallery, trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: March 3, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson