Monday, June 28, 2010


This atmospheric World War II era horror chiller constitutes a rare treat. The filmmakers have skillfully intertwined serious, real-life serious events with supernatural fictional proceedings. Meaning, few monster movies appropriated the contemporary crisis of World War II and exploited it as a part of its storyline. Remember, during World War II, American and British films served as propaganda for the masses and touted democracy over fascism. Usually, these horror films skirted political ideologies, with only the most marginal references to the war. Men and women in uniform appear in several scenes, and the bombs fall three times so we see the savagery of Hitler's civilian bombing campaign. Mind you, “The Return of the Vampire” (*** out of ****) doesn’t weave World War II entirely into the fabric of its yarn, but the titular fangster does arise as a consequence of a German Luftwaffe bombing raid. Moreover, the evil that National Socialism posed to England is comparable to the evil that Armand Tesla poses to England. Like the autocratic Nazis that manipulated millions into submission, the vampire here exerts total control over its powerless prey. During a London air raid, bombs shatter the tranquility of a cemetery where the vampire has been consigned to oblivion with a stake in his chest. Director Lew Landers and “Mummy’s Hand” scenarist Griffin Jay have taken Kurt Neumann’s original story idea and done a splendid job of integrating the war with the vampire’s reign of terror. The cinematography of lensers L. William O'Connell and John Stumar creates a creepy feeling with its reliance on a fog machine and some graceful camera movement. Today’s audiences will probably find nothing scary about this old-fashioned ghoul fest with its use of expressionist shadows to tell a story. “The Return of the Vampire” is quite unusual as it foreshadowed the combo chiller that would bring together two supernatural creatures in one film. A vampire and the werewolf together conspire hand-in-hand for the first sixty minutes of this 70-minute, black and white film before they turn on each other in the end. “Twilight” fans may initially find this film disconcerting because the vampire wields power over the werewolf, but they will savor the ending.

Bela Lugosi doesn’t appear during the opening 23 minutes. Nevertheless, when Lugosi does show up, nobody can steal a scene from him. The first scene where a werewolf, Andreas Obry (one-time actor only Matt Willis), enters a gloomy Priory cemetery and awakens the vampire at dusk is mildly spooky. Andreas serves as the equivalent of Renfield from "Dracula,” because Lugosi’s vampire possesses his soul. Admittedly, Willis appears rather ridiculous in his hirsute make-up, but this scruffy canine look may have been frightening to early twentieth century audiences. Anyway, Landers and his lensers pay tribute to German Expressionist filmmakers when they present the vampire as a shadow against a wall as he emerges from his coffin. The only flesh and blood shot is a close-up of the bloodsucker’s hand as it raises the coffin lid. Similarly, they stage the action of a man driving a stake into the vampire’s heart in silhouette against a wall. Initially, use of silhouettes was a Hollywood method of depicting violence without nauseating the audience. The vampire, Armand Tesla (Bela Lugosi of “Dracula”), differs considerably from Count Dracula. A depraved Romanian scientist who lived 200 years ago in 1744, Tesla published an authoritative text about vampires. He fell victim to his obsession with the undead and turned into one after his death. No, the filmmakers never explain what specifically turned Tesla into a vampire. Tesla is preying on young women in the year 1918 when the action unfolds and the werewolf acts as his servant. Meantime, Dr. Walter Saunders (Gilbert Emery of “The House of Rothschild”) and Lady Jane Ainsley (Frieda Inescort of “Mary of Scotland”) track Tesla down to his tomb and hammer a spike through his heart. Ironically, everything that Dr. Saunders knows about vampires he has learned from Tesla’s writing. Landers and his scenarists use Dr. Saunders as a mouthpiece throughout these early scenes so that non-horror movie audiences would not be left in the dark about the procedure for killing a vampire.

The second act of “The Return of the Vampire” occurs in 1940 before America had entered World War II with the British. Dr. Saunders has died in a plane crash and left behind a manuscript of his fantastic exploits, principally the destruction of Armand Tesla. Scotland Yard’s Chief Commissioner, Sir Frederick Fleet (Miles Mander of “South of Suez”), has read the manuscript and has no alternative but to exhume Tesla’s body to substantiate what appears to be murder. Of course, Sir Frederick flatly refuses to believe in the existence of vampires. Later, a bomb devastates the graveyard where Saunders and Lady Jane buried Tesla's body in an unmarked grave between the Fairchild grave and the Smithley grave. Two laborers stumble upon Tesla’s unearthed coffin and mistakenly believe that the bomb hurled a spike into the corpse. The conversation that they have between themselves about this grisly incident serves as amusing comic relief. Dutifully, one of the laborers, Orace (Billy Bevan) removes the spike and they regret this action. Ultimately, Tesla arises again and Andreas reverts to his werewolf days. Since Tesla’s demise, Andreas has been a tireless laboratory assistant to a now older Lady Ainsley. Lady Ainsley’s son John (Roland Varno of “Zanzibar”) has grown up. A former Royal Air Force pilot, he has now become a concert pianist, while the late Dr. Saunders’ daughter Nicki (Nina Foch of “Illegal”) serves in the women’s corps. The two plan to marry. Tesla enters Nicki’s bedroom and bites her. Later, Nicki bites John. Nothing that Lady Jane tells Sir Frederick about Tesla convinces him that Tesla is a supernatural being. Meanwhile, when his detectives question Andreas, Andreas turns into a werewolf and escapes from them. The detectives show Sir Frederick the wolf hairs that they collected in their brief struggle with Andreas, but Sir Frederick remains dubious.

Meanwhile, Lady Jane has been asked to help a scientist fleeing from the Nazis. Dr. Hugo Bruckner has escaped from Axis-occupied France with the help of the Resistance. He comes to London to meet our heroine. Tesla has Andreas dispose of Bruckner, and Tesla assumes the scientist’s identity. Eventually, Sir Frederick discovers this deception. Tesla visits Lady Jane. Since she knows his true identity, he decides it is time for him to exact his revenge against her and turn Nikki into a vampire. She exposes a cross and Tesla flees. Later, Lady Jane has another of her futile arguments with Sir Frederick about the reality of vampires. Before Tesla can carry out his morbid plan, Andreas kills him. The ending of “The Return of the Vampire” is both clever and amusing. Despite everything that has transpired, Sir Frederick remains adamant in his disbelief about vampires. The Scotland Yard commissioner queries his two plainclothes detectives. “You two fellows don’t believe in vampires, do you?” They are just as convinced that vampires exist as Lady Jane is. Sir Frederick then breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience. “Do you people?”

All vampire movies establish their own set of criteria governing the behavior of the bloodsuckers. “The Return of the Vampire” is the kind where the vampire can enter a residence without the permission of the owner. Nevertheless, the filmmakers take advantage of a strong wind to get around the 'thou shalt not enter a room rule' without a proper invitation. This occurs when Tesla sweeps into Nicki's room with a smoke screen. This may have been the first time that a character shines a mirror on a vampire and the mirror reflects the vampire's apparel but not the vampire. Typically, in these scenes, the vampire's image along with his apparel is not reflected in the mirror. Lady Jane contends that Armand Tesla's body should still be in his coffin if the spike is still in his body. When Sir Frederick sets out to examine the corpse, she hopes that the Scotland Yard Commissioner will find the body intact. According to Lady Jane, if Tesla were a vampire, then his body should not decompose. This characteristic doesn't hold true in the Hammer "Dracula" movies. What is amusing here as it is with the vampire mirror shots is the fact that the Armand Tesla's wardrobe would have deteriorated somewhat over the intervening years, but there is no sign of wear.

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