“I sleep... during the day. I am not to be disturbed... during the day.” – Armand Tesla
Yes, that line of dialogue is attributed to the character of Armand Tesla, and with its odd mid-sentence pause for dramatic effect, who could deliver it other than Bela Lugosi? (Well, we had Boris Karloff pop up last time, it seems only fair that Bela should appear as well.)
Last year, Shocktober was themed the Universal Takeover, and over the course of the month, I covered just about every classic Universal monster movie I could get my hands on. I plundered the vault. I started with Bela Lugosi’s Dracula (1930) and finished with Bela Lugosi’s second and final appearance on film as Dracula with Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). So, what’s the deal with this one?
Return of the Vampire is, in short, the best Universal Dracula movie that Universal never made.
Return of the Vampire is a Columbia Pictures production, with all the look and feel of a classic Universal Pictures monster movie of that same period. It stars Bela Lugosi as Armand Tesla – literally, Dracula in all but name. He even dresses in formal evening wear, the same as the Transylvanian Terror. The concept was actually to make a sequel for Universal’s Dracula, but Universal threatened to sue, so the character name was changed. Some more historical notes, this would be the last film by a major Hollywood studio where Lugosi would receive top billing, and its release was delayed by two months so it wouldn’t have to go against Universal’s Son of Dracula.
It’s a classic vampire movie, employing all the expected tropes and atmospherically filmed with a great graveyard set, and some familiar character actors from Universal filling in the background roles, for example ‘Orace the gravedigger is played by Billy Bevan who was the inept policeman in Dracula’s Daughter.
The first fifteen minutes of the film take place outside London in 1918. A vampire is stalking the vicinity, aided by a werewolf assistant. On the case are Professor Saunders (Gilbert Emery) and his colleague Lady Jane Ainsley (Frieda Inescort) who run a local clinic. When Tesla is unable to fully drain his latest victim under their care, he preys on Saunders’ young granddaughter instead. But they track Tesla to a nearby cemetery, where they stake him through the heart. This also releases the werewolf from his curse and in his human form of Andreas, he becomes Lady Jane’s assistant. And that’s that.
Fast forward to the days of the London blitz, 23 years later. A stray German bomb hits the graveyard and unearths Tesla’s unmarked grave. Two witless gravediggers find the corpse and assume that the stake through the body’s heart is a piece of shrapnel, and they remove it – for decency’s sake.
London now has a new problem, as the vampire is at large again, and topically, assumes the identity of Doctor Hugo Bruckner, a concentration camp escapee he murders who is being smuggled into the country to work with Lady Jane. He regains his control of Andreas and revisits the late Saunders’ granddaughter, Nikki (Nina Foch). In a strange and sadistic twist, Tesla even preys on Nikki’s fiancé, and convinces her that she did it.
Lady Jane deduces that Tesla is back and tries to convince Scotland Yard that there’s a vampire around and shows them Saunders’ account of the original case and staking from 1918. But they’re more concerned that Lady Jane might be a party to murder. You can’t after all, go around staking people. Visiting the graveyard with a view to exhume tesla’s staked corpse – the body is of course missing, so Scotland Yard aren’t interested as they have no evidence.
It’s all working out very well for Tesla, he has the perfect cover, he has Andreas (who’s actually a perky werewolf, and I imagine if he has a tail, it’s probably wagging) he has his food supply – and this is revenge on Lady Jane, turning her loved ones in to vampires.
I’d go as far as to say this is as good a film in every sense as Hammer’s Dracula A.D. 1972 which has a similar format of the arch vampire being killed in a prologue and then being resurrected in the modern day. Except this has the edge of being set in wartime London, with as ever, the black and white photography adding an extra weirdness.
It’s also the first time we see a vampire literally dissolve and melt in daylight. Previously, the silent Nosferatu had only shown the vampire fade away, but Return of the Vampire showed literally melting in an effects sequence that was shockingly graphic for its day, and still holds up now.
More vampires coming during the month.
Copyright © 2010 - 2021 Robin Pierce. All Rights reserved