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For Bela Lugosi, Hollywood's return to making horror films in 1939 after a two-year hiatus ultimately proved something of a mixed blessing. It provided the actor with steady employment until the late 1940's, 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 far 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. Lugosi would only receive top billing at lowly PRC and Monogram, where 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. Unfortunately, it falls short of its goals, but Columbia Tri-Star's attractive new DVD provides horror fans with a good opportunity to savor its best qualities.
Since Universal was considered the industry leader in the horror field, Columbia set out to make 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 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. 1
Unfortunately, a large part of the problem with The Return of the Vampire is its stubborn adherence to the well-worn Universal formula. 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 pedestrian.
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 bored audience. Lady Jane never seems to take adequate precautions to protect her family from the vampire, and comes across as a little dumb 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 far 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 1940's. Often 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. One does wish that he had had a little help from the Columbia makeup department, though, as Tesla looks pretty healthy for someone who's been dead 200 years.
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 50's but were rare in the 40's, 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 at an organ calmly, 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 she didn't get more chances to display that strength of character in the film. 2 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, and 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 Anderas. Nicely dressed, fairly well groomed and able to speak, Andreas is not a very 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, as if Tesla is constantly sending him out to pick up his laundry. (One can imagine Lugosi's familiar voice intoning, 'Remember, Andreas . . . plenty of starch in the collars!') 3 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, although certainly 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. instead of his dramatic skills, 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 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 unremarkable but sets the proper mood. 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 effective. The musical score by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco has some nicely eerie passages, but tends to sound dated. 4
Columbia Tri-Star's DVD of The Return of the Vampire is a fine presentation of the film. There is moderate speckling and other signs of age, but the black & white image is sharp with very good contrast and detail. A brief bit of text during the prologue, missing from earlier VHS and laserdisc editions, has been restored. The mono sound reflects the limitations of the era, but is clear and distortion-free. English is the only audio option. English, French, Spanish and Japanese subtitles are available. Apparently unable to locate a trailer for the film, Columbia instead offers 'bonus trailers' for Bram Stoker's Dracula and The Revenge of Frankenstein as the only supplements.
The Return of the Vampire is too derivative and poorly written to be considered a true classic. But for horror fans, the presence of Lugosi and the cozily familiar, fog-laden atmosphere are enough to make the film worth repeated viewings. For them, this disc is warmly recommended.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Landers directed The Raven under his original name, Louis Friedlander.
2. Like Lugosi, Inescort is let down by the Columbia makeup department.
The makeup designed to make her look older isn't bad, but the dark shading under her eyes is
overdone - it makes Lady Jane look like she suffers from sleep deprivation, or recently lost a
couple of rounds with Mike Tyson.
3. To be fair, in one scene the bundle is intended to represent the
clothes and effects of the late Dr. Bruckner, freshly killed by Andreas. But why does Andreas
continue toting a bundle about for the rest of the film?
4. In addition to his film work, Castelnuovo-Tedesco wrote extensively
for the concert hall and also taught composition. Among his students: legendary film composer