The picture is a real curio. Star Bela Lugosi, receiving top billing in his last major studio vehicle, had been wasted in minor, supporting roles at Universal (e.g., Black Friday, The Wolf Man, Night Monster, etc.), and looked mighty silly as the star of numerous Poverty Row efforts like The Devil Bat (1940) and The Ape Man (1943). Popular as Dracula had been a dozen years earlier, Lugosi was denied any and all opportunity to reprise that iconic part: he doesn't appear in Dracula's Daughter (1936), Universal's official sequel, and when they made Son of Dracula the title role was almost perversely handed to beefy Lon Chaney, Jr. For House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), poor Bela wasn't even in the running for Dracula; John Carradine played a very different vampire in those. For all its faults, The Return of the Vampire is as close as audiences got to see Lugosi reprise that character (in all but name) in a straight horror film.
And, low-budget though it is, the picture is in some respects more ambitious than Universal's sausage factory horrors, at least story-wise, and notable for its imitation-Universal look, a remarkable achievement for such a cheap film. Busy but often-effective director Lew Landers imitates Universal's horror house style and then some. Choking with atmosphere, it's like a Universal monster rally on steroids.
In London during the First World War, Professor Walter Saunders (Gilbert Emery) begins to suspect that a vampire is preying upon the patients of his clinic, including his young granddaughter, Nikki. With the help of Jane Ainsley (Frieda Inescort), he tracks the vampire, Armand Tesla (Lugosi), to a crypt watched over by his slave, a werewolf (Matt Willis). Tesla is staked and the werewolf, Andréas Obry, is freed from his bondage and returns to human form.
A quarter-century and another World War later, civil defense workers unknowingly remove the stake from Tesla's heart, believing it collateral damage done to the cemetery following a blitzkrieg bombing, thus reviving the vampire. Taking the name Dr. Hugo Bruckner, Tesla gains entry into the clinic, run by now-Lady Ainsley, and plots his revenge against her and Saunders's heir, the now adult Nikki Saunders (Nina Foch), who plans to marry Ainsley's son, John (Roland Varno). Andréas, working as Lady Ainsley's assistant, again falls prey to Tesla's hypnotic powers, and again is transformed into a werewolf.
The ambitious screenplay by otherwise journeymen writer Griffin Jay (with additional dialogue by Randall Faye, based on story ideas by Kurt Neumann) pits the vampire against an English gentlewoman, highly educated, though Inescort's regal bearing keeps the audience at arm's length emotionally. She lacks the intense sense of urgency associated with Peter Cushing later portrayals of Doctor Van Helsing in Hammer's Dracula films. Further, as a "mere woman," she spends too much of the story debating the matter with Scotland Yard Inspector Fleet (Miles Mander), this despite the fact that the movie audience has seen Tesla and his werewolf slave within seconds of the opening titles.
Instead, audience sympathy shifts to hapless Andréas, damned twice in one lifetime, whose fear of enslavement by Tesla is much more immediate and believable than Lon Chaney's Wolf Man, who in most of those pictures bellyaches endlessly about wanting to die and be rid of his curse.
Despite Matt Willis's standout performance, the actor was himself cursed with small roles over a ten-year career that amounted to nothing. He appeared in big, important films and forgettable potboilers, a utility player cast as bouncers, truck drivers, gangsters and the like, sometimes credited but more often not, even by the early ‘50s when he gave up movies and essentially retired from professional acting. He died in 1989.
The Return of the Vampire was Nina Foch's first feature. After toiling away at Columbia, including starring in Cry of the Werewolf, she transitioned to TV work but still occasionally appeared in movies, including a handful of major ones: An American in Paris (1951), The Ten Commandments (1956), and Spartacus (1960) among her good parts. By the 1990s she became a busy professor at USC's School of Cinema-Television.
After years of humiliating roles in worse films, Lugosi's Dracula clone restores, however fleetingly, some degree of respectability. An imposing presence, the middle act has the actor appearing in parlor scenes recalling those in the original Dracula, though a bit too much footage has Tesla on the sidelines, glowering at Andréas to do all the heavy lifting. Nevertheless, when one considers what Lugosi had become used to by this time, movies like the ludicrous The Ape Man, released earlier that year, it had to been a welcome respite.
Video & Audio
Shout! Factory's Blu-ray of The Return of the Vampire, licensed from Sony, is a basically flawless presentation of this moody black-and-white, 1.37:1 production, the high definition allowing viewers to see a lot more detail in that fog-shrouded atmosphere. The DTS-HD Master Audio (2.0 mono) is fine. Optional English subtitles are provided on this Region "A" encoded disc.
Shout! goes overboard with no less than three separate audio commentary tracks, by film historians Troy Howarth, Gary Don Rhodes, and Lee Gambin. Sampling all but listening to none in their entirety, it's clear that these guys know their stuff, but can't avoid some repetition, leaving one longing instead for a single, tightly edited track. Also included is an 8mm (silent) digest version of the film, a trailer and still gallery.
Imperfect but visually sumptuous, and featuring a rare, late-career moment of glory for its beleaguered star, The Return of the Vampire is Recommended.