For this week's Movie Monday we watch Bela Lugosi return to a familiar role in The Return of the Vampire!
Even though Bela Lugosi is forever, inseparably associated with Dracula, he actually only played the part twice--first in the original classic, and then once again in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.
But he did play vampires that were an awful lot like Dracula, in a number of films that range from not bad to absolute dreck. Let's see how this one measures up!
Return of The Vampire opens imaginatively, before the title, with a close-up of a scared-looking woman. As she backs away from the camera, a familiar-looking caped figure comes into the foreground, filling the frame. The woman screams, and the credits begins!
The camera pans across a foggy cemetery, surrounded by dead trees with branches that loom overhead menacingly. A lone figure enters the frame, and gets close to the camera. We see...its a werewolf!
The werewolf enters a crypt, and inside it is his "master", who awakens from his coffin. It is, of course, Bela Lugosi, playing Dracula in all but name. The werewolf tells his master that his latest victim has been taken to a nearby clinic.
We then cut to that clinic, where the young woman's condition baffles two doctors--Lady Jane Ainsley (Freida Inescort) and Professor Walter Saunders (Gilbert Emery). Professor Saunders stays up all night reading a book on vampires (by Dr. Armand Tesla), which Jane dismisses.
But she changed her mind when the vampire comes to the clinic and attacks the young woman again, leaving two bite marks on her neck. The two of them head to the cemetery to find the vampire's coffin.
The main cemetery set is quite gorgeous to look at, with its varying levels of depth and spooky lighting:
The two doctors find the coffin, and drive a stake into the vampire's chest. This makes the werewolf turn back to normal. He's a simple, kind man named Andreas, whom Lady Jane takes under her wing.
The film then flashes forward 24 years (which means we're now in 1967!). Prof. Saunders has just died, and his journal relating the events is being read by a member of Scotland Yard, Sir Fredrick Fleet (Miles Mander). He is shocked by what he reads, and plans to dig up the corpse(!) to see if Lady Jane committed murder.
Lady Jane says that even if the body is exhumed, it won't have decomposed, proving that it was really a vampire. But before that can happen, there's an air raid by Germany, and the cemetery is bombed.
Two gravediggers find the unearthed body of the vampire, stake intact. Assuming the stake ended up there due to the bombing, they remove it. Bad idea!
The vampire returns to normal vampire-y behavior, and goes after the now-grown daughter of Lady Jane, a woman named Nikki. The vampire's return inspired Andreas' curse to also return, and he becomes a werewolf once again.
The werewolf, wanting to be free of the curse, begs the vampire for help. No longer needing him, he shoves Andreas into a corner, dismissing him as if a dog.
As the vampire is about to bite Nikki, Andreas finds a crucifix in the dirt and finds the courage to step in:
This stops the vampire for a moment, and then more bombs hit the cemetery, including the tomb.
A few hours pass, and its now daylight. The werewolf, now back in human form, drags the vampire's body into the sunlight so it will decompose. Lady Jane Sir Frederick arrive, to watch the vampire slowly disintegrate in a surprisingly effective (and kinda gory, for 1943) series of effects shots:
Sir Frederick still doesn't quite believe they were dealing with a real vampire, and asks two plainclothes policemen if they buy into this whole story. They say they do, and Sir Frederick looks right into the camera and asks if we, too, believe in vampires:
Return of the Vampire is a lot of fun, loaded with some really atmospheric touches. Bela Lugosi's face is not seen for almost a half hour--the vampire is seen only in shadow or over the shoulder, with only Lugosi's voice being heard. Even though we all know who the vampire is of course, its still an effective bit of staging.
Its kind of odd that there's so much discussion over whether vampires are real, but no one seems to have a huge problem with a werewolf running around.
The final effect of the vampire crumbling to dust is remarkably well done, keeping with the film's general level of dry realism. Only the final, goofy scene with Sir Frederick talking to the audience breaks the spell.