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Monday, 15 May 2017

THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (1943)


A week after Universal siphoned off the undignified corpuscles from their vampire franchise with the woeful Son of Dracula (reviewed here), Columbia got their teeth into an unofficial sequel themselves. The Return of the Vampire (1943) couldn’t mention the Prince of Darkness by name since Universal still owned the name copyright, and is little better than their own follow-ons, but at least had the fading cachet of the originating star Bela Lugosi. It would be the last time he was top-billed in a major studio horror film and was shot just before he fulfilled the last two movies in his unintentionally shocking Monogram Nine contract. Although The Return of the Vampire is very much a B-movie, its representation of the aristocratic bloodsucker is carried off with more visual flair and is worth seeing for its unusually strong heroine and for its updated plot acknowledging the urban impact of the still-raging Second World War.

In establishing its story, the studio clearly copied not just the central figure but also Universal’s recent craze for reducing its monsters to dire team-up vehicles. For his Columbia version under director Lew Landers, Lugosi is at first teasingly hidden as a shadowy vampire awakened by his manservant Andreas (Matt Willis) in an English cemetery. Eschewing the usual drooling hunchback, Andreas is actually a werewolf, though inexplicably maintaining an intact smart suit instead of shredded clothing (did he retain the gentlemanly rectitude to put this on post-transformation?).

Randall Faye and Griffin Jay’s screenplay is stronger on plot than on the pedestrian dialogue that accompanies it. Within the ten minute prologue, Lugosi is introduced as Dr Armand Tesla, former eighteenth-century occult expert and present-day nightcrawler, and in Dr Saunders we get an early nemesis who identifies and pursues him with impressive deductive speed (albeit in the very under-powered form of Gilbert Emery – Sir Basil in 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter). Spouting clunky exposition worthy of Ed Wood, Tesla tells Andreas “Your fate is to be what you are, and mine is to be what I am - your master.” Jay’s other scripts included four of Universal’s Mummy sequels and more lycanthropic mayhem in Cry of the Werewolf (1946) starring this film’s female target Nina Foch.

L.W. O’Connell and John Stumar also help to offset the ear-bashing with some artful visual tableaux of Lugosi on his elegant rampage. At the horizon of the graveyard, he exits on his blood mission in a bravura, bat-like spreading of cape amid the ground fog  - providing you don’t notice how much his face-concealing high collar is reminiscent of the notorious bid to hide his post-mortem replacement in Plan 9 From Outer Space).
 

 Throughout the film, Landers ensures that all of his entrances and exits have a worthy theatrical flourish, bettering Universal’s tossed-off clumsy cuts to a rubber bat by subtle camera moves and only using ethereal metamorphoses between vampire and mist.

The other plus point of the film is the surprising feminist slant (for the 1940s) on heroism.  Lady Jane Ainsley (Frieda Inescort) begins as the concerned mother of an anaemic patient, Tesla’s opening blood-bank withdrawal. After his grand-daughter is similarly bitten, Saunders equally anaemically goes into action to protect their other shared children. Together they source Tesla’s coffin and stake him, much to the chagrin of Andreas who then mercifully transforms back into innocent human form. From this point, Lady Jane gradually becomes a capable, indeed formidable female protagonist. Twenty-three years later, she is employing the recovered Andreas as a lab technician whilst single-handedly fending off a possible murder arrest by Scotland Yard’s Sir Frederick (Miles Mander - Deacon Foster in The House of the Seven Gables) over the mysterious execution of a preposterous so-called vampire. Lady Jane not only defends herself admirably but will soon go on the attack against Tesla in a manner that would eclipse any typical male vampire-hunter for sheer forthright conviction.

Another refreshing angle in The Return of the Vampire is the weaving-in of the ever-present threat of wartime aerial bombardment to increase the peril. Although the film was made two years after the horrific London Blitz of September 1940 to May 1941, the production deserves some credit for presenting a modern London that doesn’t ignore the real-world jeopardy that audiences had been experiencing outside the cinema. Stock-footage portrays a Nazi bombing raid whose impact involuntarily exhumes Tesla’s corpse from his coffin out into the open . A pair of labourers arrive at the cemetery, one of which is the lovable walrus-moustached silent comedy star Billy Bevan (already racking up cockney cameos in horror movie franchises such as Dracula’s Daughter, The Invisible Man Returns, and the 1941 Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde). “There’s a blasted spike stickin’ out of ‘is chest!” he exclaims, removing the spike for re-burial, thus re-activating Tesla. Hey, how was the kindly Bevan to know the consequences?

The plot then essentially boils down to a power struggle between Dr Tesla and Lady Jane for the soul of the now-adult Nicky. Nina Foch is required to do little other than be a very attractive potential bride of {not *cough*} Dracula. A dramatic high-light is a highly effective confrontational scene between Inescort and Lugosi where they engage in a charged face-off of good versus evil while she plays the organ. Lugosi waxes poetic in customary Svengali mode about his intentions for Nicky: “Her soul will wander through the night, and you will never find where her body rests. And then in another form she will come back for John.” (Nicky’s fiancĂ©).

Underneath her veddy British received tones, Inescort demonstrates a strength of purpose that today would be depicted by the heroine being yet another twirling variation of sexy, black-leather-clad martial artist (you know, for boys). Here, she embodies an unbreakable force of protective intent simply by personal conviction, replying to Tesla firstly “Even your power cannot stand against the power of faith and goodness” before scorching him with the reflection of a concealed crucifix from behind her sheet music.

Eventually Tesla helps to seal his own fate by his own monstrous arrogance in leaving the wounded Andreas (who he had hypnotised back into lupine service) to die. The spurned werewolf rewards his unfair dismissal by saving Nicky‘s life and then dragging Tesla out onto the rubble-strewn streets for a literally striking murder in the sunlight. Andreas’s use of a brick and a makeshift stake on Lugosi surrounded by bomb damage makes a powerful and unusual climax to a vampire film. Tesla’s face melts into a waxen mask over his dead skull.

The Return of the Vampire would have benefitted from ending right there, but Landers drops the ball by adding a daft epilogue. Sir Frederick appeals in vain to the key cast for some healthy disbelief about these incredible events, and then unnecessarily breaks the fourth wall to ask us “And do you people?”  Well, we were amiably going along for the ride until you brought it up...

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