Monday, October 4, 2010

31 Days of Halloween: The Return of the Vampire

It's common knowledge that, after appearing on film in 1931's Dracula, Bela Lugosi was forever typecast. Such was the indelible impression he made in that iconic role. This caused the actor great dismay, as he had far greater range than film studios (not to mention the public) seemed interested in allowing him. This limited the amount of roles he could get in film. After he angered the brass at Universal by turning down the part of the Monster in James Whale's Frankenstein, he was virtually blacklisted at that studio(in the few roles he got at Universal thereafter, while sometimes prominent, he was always treated disrespectfully by the studio heads, and insultingly underpaid). This, coupled with the almost dead halt in the production of horror films in the second half of the 1930s, put a serious damper on Bela's film career.

Fortunately, after 1939's Son of Frankenstein kicked off the second great cycle of horror films, Bela was in demand again. This was a mixed blessing, however, as quite a few of the roles he was offered were in poverty row vehicles from studios such as Monogram. Films such as The Devil Bat and Voodoo Man provided Bela with work, but they didn't do much to help his career. Fortunately, the occasional offer came from a more prestigious studio(even if those same studios did not consider the project one of their prestige films). Such was the case with Columbia's 1944 The Return of the Vampire.
Bela portrays Armand Tesla, a vampire who is menacing the family of Lady Jane Ainsley(Frieda Inescort). With the help of her friend Professor Saunders, she locates the vampire's lair and drives a stake through his heart, ending his reign of evil. As a bonus, they also free Tesla's werewolf henchman Andreas(Matt Willis [no link here, as the Wiki entry links to a bio of a different Matt Willis, and no bio exists for the correct one]).
 More than two decades later, during the "present day," Tesla is inadvertently freed from his confinement, and renews his vendetta against the now middle-aged Lady Jane and her now-adult son (Miles Mander) and his fiancee(Nina Foch).

Bela is excellent in a role that he knew better than anyone on earth, since Armand Tesla is essentially Dracula. Matt Willis as Andreas is okay, but he won't be making anyone forget Lon Chaney Jr.'s Larry Talbot anytime soon. Columbia had to be careful to avoid making their werewolf look too similar to Universal's Wolf Man, and the result is a werewolf that looks more like a rather friendly dog of some sort. He's a rather ineffectual werewolf, as he is constantly foiled at every turn, and even gets nearly taken down by two slim Englishmen who are sent after him! Larry Talbot may have been a bit of a sad sack, but even in human form, he never got his ass kicked in a fistfight! Even Tesla treats like him Smithers to his Mr. Burns. Andreas just can't catch a break in this movie. 
Frieda Inescort is quite good as Lady Jane, the film's protagonist. It was highly unusual to have a female lead in a horror film at that time, particularly one who is so level-headed and strong-willed. She never comes off as weak-minded or in need of a man to rescue her, which is very refreshing. In fact, she confronts Tesla on her own, and nearly bests him herself before he manages to escape. One has no doubt that she would have been capable of destroying the vampire once and for all in the end, had circumstances not intervened.
The effects are quite good, including heavy use of the fog machine. The way the fog is utilized leads to some very cool scenes, such as a shot early in the film when Tesla is attacking a sleeping victim. There's a great effects shot at the end that was accomplished with the use of a wax cast of Bela. I'll say no more to avoid spoiling it completely, but the effect is suitably gruesome.

It has been suggested more than once that The Return of the Vampire is more or less an unofficial sequel to Dracula. Considering that the Bram Stoker novel was still not public domain in 1944, and the necessary changes that would have to be made to characters and situations to avoid lawsuit, this is a perfectly acceptable theory. There are characters to fill every major role in the familiar Dracula story. The film is fun on its own merits, however, and doesn't need that crutch to make it worthwhile. It lacks the style of the Universal horrors, but it is a perfectly serviceable classic horror film. For Bela Lugosi fans, it's doubly important, as it gave Bela an increasingly rare opportunity to play the larger-than-life villain, which he could do better than just about anyone, in a well-mounted production for a big movie studio. The years of being reduced to demeaning public appearances at movie theaters with a man in a crappy gorilla suit and starring in dreck such as Scared to Death and Mother Riley Meets the Vampire were not far off. The Return of the Vampire was one of Bela's last hurrahs in a quality production, and merits viewing for that reason alone. Fortunately, it's also an above-average horror film that genre fans should enjoy.

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