Scary Movies: Return of the Vampire

Not Dracula, not Dracula…okay, it’s basically Dracula.

As usual, we have a bit of a horror movie overhang now in November, with a couple movie reviews I still need to wrap up. The movie this time is 1943’s Return of the Vampire, starring Bela Lugosi. After an unpromising start, it turned out to be somewhat interesting, though far from a great movie.

Oddly for the subject matter and time period, this was not a Universal release, but was put out by Columbia. Still, with Lugosi playing a vampire (who for copyright reasons could not be named Dracula), it’s inevitably regarded as an unofficial Dracula sequel.

It starts off in the closing days of World War I in England, where the young scientist, Lady Jane Ainsley, and her older colleague, Professor Saunders, are baffled by a local medical case where a young woman has been drained of blood. After some deep research of the most obscure medical cases from medieval times, Professor Saunders concludes it was a vampire attack, and specifically the work of Armand Tesla, the very man who wrote the book Saunders consulted, and who had been turned to a vampire after writing it. Lady Jane is skeptical until Saunders shows her the bite marks on the young woman’s neck. When he discovers Saunders and Lady Jane are hunting him, Tesla invades the bedroom of Saunders’s young granddaughter, NIkki, and bites her. Saunders and Lady Jane find Tesla’s grave in a local cemetery, fight off his werewolf assistant, Andreas, and drive a stake through Tesla’s heart.

This by-the-book vampire tale takes up the first twenty minutes. It’s at this point where the movie takes a more interesting turn. We fast-forward to the modern day (i.e., the early 1940s during the German blitz), where Lady Jane is now a respected scientist mourning the recent death of her mentor, Professor Saunders. Saunders’s account of the death of Armand Tesla has fallen into the hands of Detective Fleet at Scotland Yard. Fleet considers the vampire story rubbish, but is very interested in charging Lady Jane with Tesla’s murder.

Meanwhile, at the cemetery where Tesla was buried, a recent bombing raid by the Germans has churned up several graves, including Tesla’s. Believing the stake through his heart to be bomb shrapnel, a pair of cemetery workers remove it and rebury the body. Naturally, Tesla soon emerges from the freshly-dug soil. Andreas, who shed his excess body hair and became Lady Jane’s loyal assistant after Tesla’s staking released Andreas from his power, is on the coast waiting for Hugo Bruckner, a Nazi scientist who is planning to defect. Tesla shows up, desiring revenge against Lady Jane, and reasserts his control over Andreas. When Bruckner’s boat arrives, Andreas kills him and Tesla assumes his identity.

Back in London, Saunders’s granddaughter Nikki is now a young lady and Lady Jane is throwing a party to celebrate her recent engagement. Tesla, in the guise of Bruckner, attends the party, where is charming and sophisticated. Nikki is fascinated by him, and later finds Saunders’s account of Tesla’s death in her bedroom. It is not long until she, too, is under Tesla’s power.

Detective Fleet, stymied in charging Lady Jane with murder because of Tesla’s missing body at the cemetery, has assigned two agents to keep tabs on her. The agents witness Andreas transforming into a werewolf, and find the real Bruckner’s discarded personal items. But will all this evidence convince Detective Fleet that Tesla really is a vampire, and will he and Lady Jane be able to stop his evil plans before he takes his revenge?

Return of the Vampire (1943)
Story/Plot/Characters— The story makes some interesting plot choices, as I described above. Still, there’s something underwhelming about this movie. The script is decent and the acting isn’t bad but everything seems intentionally played down. For instance, all the characters are constantly calm and rational in discussing the vampire situation, to the point that it sounds more like they’re deciding on lunch than dealing with the supernatural. It’s obvious this was a directorial choice since it afflicts all the actors. I’m not one for overacting, but one might be forgiven for showing a little emotion when they’ve just encountered the most horrific of crimes. (2.5 points)
Special Effects— Okay-ish special effects–Dracula, er, Tesla gets only a cape to indicate his vampire-ality, though Andreas’s transformations to a werewolf are effective. The bombings during the London blitz scenes are obvious stock footage. (.5 points)
Scariness— Not in the least. (0 points)
Atmosphere/Freakiness— The typical cemetery scenes one expects from a vampire flick–clearly filmed on a soundstage–provide the minimum necessary atmosphere. The fog machine was certainly in working order, as the producers have befogged scenes nearly to the point of ludicrousness, possibly trying to cover up the cheap sets. (.5 points)
Total=3.5 points (Okay)

Some interesting choices in the script and Lugosi in the cast could have added up to a better movie, but it was undermined by an oddly calm tone, as well as low-budget sets and special effects.

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