Monday, March 25, 2019

Return of the Vampire (1943)

I'm trying to ease my way back into the world of schlocky pop culture, so I thought that I'd start by going back in time to the forties anf having a quick look at the trailer for Return of the Vampire.  A cheapjack attempt by Columbia to cash in on the popularity of rival studio Universal's cycle of horror movies featuring Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman and the Mummy, Return of the Vampire actually has several points of interest, that lift it above the average B-movie horror of the period.  Most notably, it headlines Bela Lugosi, recreating his most famous role in all but name: his vampire might here be called Armand Tesla but he is clearly closely modeled on Count Dracula.  The fact is that, despite the success of the their 1930 production of Dracula, (starring Lugosi, of course), Universal hadn't made the most of the character, focusing instead on, first of all, Frankenstein and his monster, and subsequently the Wolfman.  Dracula's legacy in the Universal films was, up to that point, confined to two appearances by his off-spring: Dracula's Daughter and Son of Dracula, neither featuring Lugosi.

Columbia clearly saw a gap in the market and came up with Return of the Vampire, featuring Dracula himself, Bela Lugosi, for whom this was a rare return to top billing in a studio production.  After this, it was back to poverty row and the treadmill of Monogram productions.  The film was undoubtedly also influenced by the success of Universal's recent release Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, which packaged together two monsters for the price of one, with the Columbia movie featuring not just a vampire, but also a werewolf.  The latter has an interesting story arc, starting as the vampire's servant, being released from his curse and joining the good guys, before falling foul of the resurrected vampire and turning lycanthropic again.  In a final twist, he turns again and becomes instrumental in Lugosi's downfall, at the cost of his own life.  Columbia were clearly going all out to replicate the tragic werewolf character created by Universal for Lon Chaney Jr's Wolfman.  The film is also unusual in making the Van Helsing character female and giving her the added motivation of having to protect her own daughter from the vampire in the latter part of the film, whilst simultaneously facing a Scotland Yardmurder investigation for her original staking of the vampire.  (another Universal reference: in Dracula's Daughter Van Helsing himself finds himself facing a similar investigation for his staking of Dracula in the previous film).

Return of the Vampire also features an intriguing narrative structure, with the vampire's two manifestations occurring twenty four years apart, initially during World War One, being resurrected in World War Two after a bomb falls on the cemetary where he has been buried.  In effect, his deprivations becomes an analogy for the horrors of war.  During his second coming, Lugosi's vampire takes on the identity of a refugee scientist escaped from a Nazi concentration camp, newly arrived in London (and murdered by the werewolf).  There's no escaping the insidious spread of evil, it seems.  Directed by B-movie veteran Lew Landers, Return of the Vampire might lack much of the visual style of the Universal films it seeks to ape, but it moves at a good pace, packing a lot of incident into only sixty nine minutes.  It is also, in quality terms, several steps above the kind of films Lugosi would subsequently find himself appearing in.  Clearly, it must have been successful enough to convince Universal that there was still mileage in the Dracula character, as they resuscitated him for House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula in 1944 and 1945 respectively, albeit played by John Carradine rather than Lugosi.



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