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RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (1944)

"Not a soul will believe us, but we know this monster exists. Menace.
Deadly. Horrible. We must destroy it. "

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Director: Lew Landers

Starring: Bela Lugosi, Frieda Inescourt, Nina Foch, Miles Mander, Matt Willis, Gilbert Emery, Roland Varno

Screenplay: Griffin Jay and Randall Faye

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Synopsis: A werewolf, Andreas (Matt Willis), is in thrall to a vampire (Bela Lugosi) whose latest victim is in the care of doctor and scientist, Lady Jane Ainsley (Frieda Inescourt). Puzzled by the girl's bloodless condition, Lady Jane calls in Professor Saunders (Gilbert Emery). When he tries to talk to the victim, she becomes hysterical, then dies. Reading a book on vampires by a Romanian scientist, Armand Tesla, Professor Saunders realises the truth. He tries to convince Lady Jane, but she is doubtful until it is discovered that Saunders' young granddaughter has been attacked during the night. Saunders and Lady Jane investigate local graveyards, and locate the vampire's coffin. As Saunders drives a spike through the monster's heart, the werewolf Andreas is released from his power. Years later, an account of these occurrences falls into the hands of Scotland Yard when Professor Saunders dies. Lady Jane tells the Chief Commissioner (Miles Mander) that the vampire was in fact Armand Tesla himself, and that Andreas is in her employ after undergoing many years of therapy. Disbelieving the vampire story, the Commissioner warns Lady Jane that she may be facing a murder charge. Lady Jane tells the truth to her son, John (Roland Varno), who is engaged to Professor Saunders' granddaughter, Niki (Nina Foch); Niki knows nothing of the vampire's attack upon her as a child. During the blitz, the cemetery containing Armand TesIa's body is bombed. When two workers sent to clean up the damage find the vampire's body, they pull the spike out of it. Soon Tesla has revived. Intent on revenge, he makes his way to Lady Jane's house to reassert his power over Andreas and Niki.

Comments: Bela Lugosi's Armand Tesla is a far cry from the smooth and well-mannered Count Dracula, who smarmed his way into society. In his final serious outing as a vampire, Lugosi gives us a grouchy and bad-tempered bloodsucker, exhibiting little of the charisma traditionally associated with the role.

It is not only on this level that Return Of The Vampire plays fast and loose with convention. The film's first unusual offering is that the book on vampires and vampire-hunting was clearly written by the vampire himself. Just as we're wondering why on earth Tesla would have put such a weapon into the hands of his enemies, the film informs us that it was Tesla's fascination with vampires that caused him to become a vampire. (This idea may be a lift from Robert Siodmak's intriguing Son Of Dracula (1943), in which Louise Allbritton's obsession with death allows her to return from the grave.)

The vampire's lack of reflection is standard enough, but here it is only the vampire, not his clothes, that don't reflect (sensible enough in theory, this looks very silly in practice). Rather more contentious is the use of a metal spike rather than a wooden stake, the failure of the vampire's body to decompose following staking, and entire relationship of the vampire and his werewolf servant. Why should Tesla's slave be a werewolf, rather than just a possessed human being, like Renfield? The werewolf maketip is so poor, and the conception of the character so ridiculous (his duties consist mainly of carrying Tesla's clothes around in a bundle; at one point he snarls at Lady Jane and Sir Frederick like a cross puppy), that it impossible not to suspect that Andreas' existence has less to do with trying to find new angles in the mythology, and rather more to do with the success of Universal's contemporary productions Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943) and House Of Dracula (1944).

Having classified Andreas as one of the undead, the film then contradicts itself by having him live on after Tesla's first "death", his treatment at the hands of Lady Jane harking forward to The Howling (1981). There are numerous other lapses in the script, most of them extremely funny. Revived, Tesla announces pompously that it was "my curse that caused Professor Saunders' recent death". Considering that the Professor died in a plane crash twenty-three years after staking Tesla, this exhibition of power is less than impressive. Lady Jane instantly recognises Tesla's ring when she sees it, but despite having spent years becoming an expert on the man himself (his book has an impressive portrait of him as a frontispiece) when he enters her house as Dr Bruckner, she has no suspicion of who he is.

This idiocy aside, the character of Lady Jane is far and away the most interesting thing about this film. The notion of an English lady of title being simultaneously a doctor with a private hospital, a scientist, a psychiatrist, a collaborator with the wartime European resistance movement and a vampire-hunter is not exactly a common one. It would be nice to think that the producers were genuinely trying to say something here, but the film's threadbare production values indicate that the complexity of her character was probably just a cost-saving measure, even as Roger Corman would later create interesting characters for Beverly Garland by having her simultaneously play the hero and the threatened female, and at the same time save a salary. The budgetary restraints also work against the clever thought of having the vampire disinterred by the blitz: the "bombs" go off like fireworks among the cardboard tombstones. The sets are constantly swathed in dry ice fog to hide their limitations; at one point, it even follows Tesla into Lady Jane's house.

Other than the performance of Frieda Inescourt, the acting in this film isn't much to write home about, although Nina Foch's debut performance as Niki secured her the lead role in Cry Of The Werewolf (1944). Lugosi's dialogue is terrible, but he gives it the usual strange twist through the power of his accent and delivery. Anyway, considering that from here he went on to Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire (1952) and Plan Nine From Outer Space (1956), we shouldn't quibble, but rather just sit back and be thankful that Lugosi is allowed a certain measure of dignity.