Monday, February 28, 2011

RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE. "This is the case of Armand Tesla, vampire, as compiled from the personal notes of Professor Walter Saunders, Kings' College, Oxford. The following events took place on the outskirts of London towards the close of the year 1918. They began on the night of October 15th; a particularly gloomy, foggy night that was well-suited for a visitation by the supernatural." This visitation was enabled by Columbia Pictures Studios under the direction of Lew Landers as the 1943 spookfest called "The Return of the Vampire" starring Bela Lugosi as Dracula in all but name. We're all familiar with Lugosi's historic turn as the vampiric Count at Universal Studios in 1931; a turn which would effectively save Carl Laemmle's studio from bankruptcy. Bela would be unceremoniously dropped from the sequel "Dracula's Daughter" in 1936; replaced by a waxworks dummy in the scene where Gloria Holden commits his body to the fire. In fact, in the very same year of 1943, Universal would deliver another vampire film (Son of Dracula) and cast their new horror favourite Lon Chaney Jr. as the slightly over-fed Count Alucard without seriously considering Lugosi for the role. Perhaps poetic justice guided the hand of Columbia Pictures in their effort to make their own Universal-like Dracula film; calling it "The Return of the Vampire" and starring Bela Lugosi would naturally clue in the prospective audience that Dracula was back. So who was this Tesla guy? Well, naturally Columbia wouldn't dare call him Dracula and draw down the wrath of Universal's potent legal department. So, an alias was in order; fitting considering Tesla himself masquerades as Dr. Hugo Bruckner throughout the film. So there we have it: an opening narration related about about the mysterious events in 1918. Matt Willis as Andreas (perhaps the most lovable werewolf ever in movies with his puppy dog nose and happy, fanged grin) creeps through a foggy graveyard (that almost out-Universals Universal for sheer atmosphere) on his way to a subterranean tomb to wax eloquent to the coffin of Armand Tesla. And it's really a heckuva speech provided by either screenwriter Griffin Jay or else more probably by Randall Faye (who provided additional dialogue): "Master! It's night again! Beautiful, dark, silent night with the fog creeping in. Time for you to awaken, master." Delivered with a whisper in the blackness of a crypt and howling wolves in the background sets the tone right away. Columbia is really going for Universal horror, here. Willis is quite fun as the werewolf Andreas. In the makeup, he looks absolutely nothing like Lon Chaney Jr.'s Wolf Man; however, out of the makeup Matt Willis was obviously cast because of his similar expression and facial structure. The tragic figure of Andreas Obry is quite deliberately meant to evoke Lawrence Talbot. As Tesla leaves his tomb and spreads his cape in the foggy night, I'd like to mention a little about Matt Willis' genre roles. Other than this memorable appearance as a werewolf, Willis didn't really appear in horror films. Immediately after "Return", he appeared in the 1944 film "The Ghost That Walks Alone". Other than that, notable appearance came as a henchman in the "Senator Claghorn" film "It's A Joke, Son", as an uncredited policeman in the Edward G. Robinson film noir "Scarlet Street" and as a bouncer in Abbott & Costello's "It Ain't Hay".
As for Bela, he usually gets the blame for overly theatrical acting and scene-chewing. However, Lugosi here is the most restrained performer of the bunch. Perhaps realizing the great chance he was being given to essentially headline as Dracula in another film, Bela invests the role with a gravity and seriousness that seems like the calm around which the sometimes hysterically theatrical overacting of his cast stormily revolves. Frieda Inescort as Lady Jane Ainsley, vampire hunter, first appears in the 1918 sequence of the film. As Professor Saunders (Gilbert Emery) queries whether the barking dogs indicate prowlers on the grounds, Lady Jane coolly quips "Possibly. We have them sometimes" and goes back to peering at her microscope. Her deadpan delivery of this line is probably meant to illustrate her steely courage but will most likely get a laugh. It got one from me. Later, as the film jumps to the World War II era (1943), Inescort plays in old (or rather middle-)age makeup with a matronly concern that sometimes pushes one's "Oh come on!" button. Her performance is not embarrassing by any means but is slightly wooden and uninvolving. Frieda Inescort would make a few other horror appearances in "The Alligator People" as well as an episode of Boris Karloff's Thriller entitled "The Prisoner in the Mirror" in which an undead sorcerer emerges from a haunted mirror to possess the living (shades of Amicus' "From Beyond the Grave"). The rest of the cast consists of Miles Mander as Scotland Yard's Inspector Frederick Fleet, Nina Foch as Nicki Saunders and Roland Varno as her fiancee (and Lady Jane's son) John Ainsley. Varno is in full ineffectual leading man mode as he tries to follow in David Manners' footsteps (but lacks the charm and humour to pull it off). Varno's two other notable horror appearances would occur alongside Bela Lugosi and George Zucco in Bela's only color film "Scared To Death" as well as a brief appearance as the master of ceremonies in Vincent Price's "The Mad Magician". Nina Foch, as always, acquits herself quite well as the vampirized Nicki (also clearly modelled after Helen Chandler in "Dracula"). She alternates between fluttery swooning and hypnotized somnambulism. In her "fluttery" mode, Foch can veer a little too close to overacting but she is very effective when she is under Tesla's spell; staring intently at Varno's exposed throat. When John Ainsley is found bitten later in the film, it is obvious that Nicki vampirized him in the previous scene. However, Lady Jane confronts Tesla with the knowledge that he actual bit her son; not Nicki. I don't buy it. I like to think it was actually Nicki who put the chomp on her future husband. Call it the (gothic) romantic in me. Nina Foch, of course, also appeared in the horror film "Cry of the Werewolf" as well as many genre appearances on TV in shows such as Lights Out, Suspense, Tales of Tomorrow, Kolchak: The Night Stalker and The Outer Limits. Oddly enough, Foch also appeared in an episode of "The Thin Man" entitled "Lady Frankenstein"!!! As for Miles Mander's Inspector Fleet, the most infamous moment has to come in the very last line of the film. Despite all the evidence he's seen during the film, Fleet STILL doesn't believe in vampires. This ranks right up there with the stupidity of Lady Jane as she constantly fails to recognize Armand Tesla until 3/4 of the way through the film (despite having encountered him in 1918 with Professor Saunders at his first staking). As he asks those around him whether they believe in vampires, Mander turns directly to the camera and smirks "And do YOU people?" Fade out. As sledgehammer breaking of the fourth wall that goes a long way towards undermining the carefully composed atmosphere of the rest of the film. Of course, one cannot blame Mander for this as he was directed to deliver the line by the script and the director. Mander also doesn't give an "embarrassing" performance but he does come across as stuffy and pinched. This can result in sometimes amusing lines such as Fleet's advice to Lady Jane: "My dear lady, you simply can't go around the country driving things into people's hearts!" Says who, I ask you? Frankly, with these fussy and boring characters, I'm rooting for Armand & Andreas. Miles Mander (who would die of a heart attack a mere 3 years after this film) made several notable horror appearances in films such as "The Picture of Dorian Gray", "The Phantom of the Opera (1943)", and 1939's "Tower of London" alongside Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone and Vincent Price. Mander also appeared in such borderline gothic mysteries as "The House of the Seven Gables (1940)" and "Shadows On the Stairs (1941)" (with fellow "Return of the Vampire" co-star Frieda Inescort) as well as Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes entries "The Pearl of Death" and "The Scarlet Claw" and the classic film noir mystery "Murder, My Sweet" starring Dick Powell as hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe. The film itself is basically a retread of "Dracula" (much like Universal's own 1932 production of "The Mummy" borrowed the basic plot and characters of Lugosi's film -- including several of "Dracula"'s actors as well as the input of John L. Balderston) only set during the air raid sirens of World War II's London Blitz. Lugosi as Tesla isn't fooling anyone (except copyright holders) in that he is playing anyone other than Count Dracula in this film. Tesla's enslaved servant Andreas is quite reminiscent of Dwight Frye's Renfield; alternately glum with guilt or gleeful to do his master's bidding. Vampire Hunting Lady Jane is an obvious stand-in for Edward Van Sloan's Van Helsing; while also filling Dr. Seward's function by providing granddaughter Nikki (Seward's daughter Mina played by Helen Chandler in "Dracula") as the vampire's semi-vampirized blonde catspaw. "Return of the Vampire"'s concept of holding Lady Jane possibly liable for murder for the staking of Armand Tesla also goes back to the "actual" sequel of "Dracula": "Dracula's Daughter" in which Edward Van Sloan's Van Helsing actual is taken in by police for the crime of staking the Count at the end of the 1931 film. Van Helsing must convince the authorities that the Dracula actually was an undead vampire which will act as sort of a "get out of jail free card" for the crusading vampire hunter. And while Andreas in werewolf form doesn't resemble Lon Chaney Jr.'s Wolf Man makeup by Jack Pierce, it has been often noted the physical resemblance between the actor Matt Willis' face to that of Lon Chaney Jr. Willis' agonizing over the evil control of Lugosi's vampire may strongly evoke Dwight Frye's Renfield but it also brings to mind the long-suffering Lawrence Talbot when Andreas takes werewolf form. The wartime air-raid device works particularly well when a German bomb lands on the cemetary where Tesla's body lies staked and some comical British gravekeepers mistake the stake (ouch!) for shrapnel and pull it out; thus reviving Tesla and plunging the previously cured werewolf Andreas back into his lycanthropic ways. The scene where Tesla's white hand claws its way out of his re-dug grave is gloriously effective and prefigures a similar scene in Mario Bava's "Black Sunday" almost two decades later. "Return of the Vampire", in fact, is sort of it's own sequel; containing as it does the earlier "movie" featured in the film's opening as well as it's own "sequel" later when Tesla is revived after years in the ground. "Return of the Vampire" is no direct sequel to a previous film but instead combines it's own "original" film with it's own sequel in the same picture. Tesla, thus revived, enters the Ainsley mansion as an invited guest under the guise of Dr. Bruckner and quickly sets his eyes on Nicki. The usual Dracula antics ensue until Lady Jane and Inspector Fleet FINALLY figure out they're dealing with the revived vampire Armand Tesla. Andreas becomes a furry double agent as he apparently works for Lady Jane while secretly carrying out Tesla's sinister orders and deftly moving the goody two shoes characters around like chess pieces for his master. Scenes where the vampire mentally calls Nicki from her bed are pure Universal horror with moody chiaroscuro shadows and bedcovers blown by the leaf-laden wind of open French windows. Nicki sleepwalks down to the library (in a spectacular blanket of indoor ground fog) with Bela's whispered commands echoing on the soundtrack. "I shall command and you shall obey!" intones Lugosi. It's after this exchange that Nicki seemingly vamps John. Fleet and Lady Jane also soon discover Andreas' duplicity and the werewolf mocks them with talk of Tesla's invincibility. "Return of the Vampire" is the perfect fun forties horror film to watch on a midnight showing of "Shock Theater". It has superb atmosphere and photography as well as one of Bela Lugosi's most solid performances. As I've said before, Bela plays it straight and gives Tesla a weight and authority which the (slight) script requires. A quick viewing of 1935's "The Raven" (also directed by Lew Landers as "Louis Friedlander") reveals just how far Bela's command of the English language has progressed in the ensuing 8 years. The familiar Lugosi accent is, of course, still there but Bela seems to grasp the meaning of the words much more than he did in his over-enunciated line readings of the earlier film: "Out step-p-t a state-lee rrrrrr-rrhay-ven") But as always, Bela can lift a somewhat weak screenplay to new heights of horror mood and he does so admirably in "Return". He is suitably commanding as Andreas' "master", charming in the disguise of Dr. Hugo Bruckner (who has been murdered at Tesla's command and lies at the bottom of the English Channel), and threateningly reptilian as he faces off against Lady Jane in the famous "organ playing scene". Tesla (in full tuxedo and cape) enters as Lady Jane solemnly plays the organ throughout the scene. "So at last, through Andreas, you learned who I am," Tesla taunts her with a smile, "How great must be your satisfaction to realize how well you've cured him!" Tesla's threats appear quite concrete as he threatens Lady Jane: "What a fool you are! With all your scientific knowledge you have achieved nothing! You are too late to stop what I have set out to do." In fact, so confident is Lugosi in this scene that it is almost shocking when the seemingly ineffectual Lady Jane reveals a glowing cross behind her sheet music and dispatches Tesla in a puff of smoke. Tesla summons Nicki to sleepwalk her way to his cemetary hideout while Lady Jane & Fleet follow her. Air raid sirens start sounding as our group reach the graveyard through some of the heavest ground fog in cinema history. Fleet shoots Andreas and bombs start to fall. Andreas, the ever faithful werewolf servant, picks up Nicki and carries her to Tesla's underground tomb. While ducking and covering, Lady Jane and Fleet lose them. Andreas deposits Nicki on a cold stone slab and begs Tesla not to let him die from his bullet wound. Cruelly, Tesla dismisses Andreas in a particularly chilling performance by Lugosi that makes one genuinely want to "hiss" the villain. "I no longer need you, Andreas." Tesla snarls, "Your usefulness is over!" How can even Bela kick such a lovable old puppy dog when he's down?!? Tesla sends him into the corner to die. This scene is particularly reminiscent of Dracula's similar dispatch of Renfield after he has unwittingly led the white hats to Dracula's lair in the final moments of the 1931 Universal film. While the vampire looms over Nicki, Andreas finds a conveniently dropped crucifix in the dirt, hears the encouraging words of Lady Jane in his mind, gets religion, changes back to human form and brandishes the cross at Lugosi. A bomb falls. The tomb caves in. Andreas comes to and carries Tesla out into the early morning sunlight. Cue disintegrating wax dummy replica of Lugosi and the forces of good have triumphed once again. Of course, Andreas has kicked off as well but hey, that's morality show biz! Lew Landers who, besides directing the 1935 Karloff-Lugosi pairing "The Raven", also contributed such genre films as "Mystery Ship" (1941), "The Mask of Diijon" (1946), "Seven Keys to Baldpate" (1947) and "Inner Sanctum" (1948). As he did in "The Raven", Landers directs in a swiftly moving style which nonetheless piles on the horror atmosphere with a deft touch sadly lacking in many other non-Universal horror films of the era. With a better script, "The Return of the Vampire" could have been an outright classic. As it is, "Return" is loads of creepy fun. Especially on a dark, stormy night, the viewer bathed in the blue light of the picture tube. Do we believe in vampires, Inspector Fleet? You bet your bats we do!

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