If it’s a month with 31 days in it, you can be sure that Jules will be firing out the horror movie reviews.
So, following on from his on “31 Days of Hammer” in January, his “31 Days of British Horror” in March and May, and his “31 Days of American Horror” in August, Jules is once travelling across the pond this October with… you guessed it… 31 MORE Days of American Horror!
Director: Lew Landers
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Frieda Inescort, Nina Foch, Miles Mander, Roland Varno, Matt Willis
It might have been a huge hit and established Bela Lugosi as the definite version of the Count for years to come, but unlike his other Universal Monster peers, Dracula never got a proper sequel. Sure, there were Daughters and Sons and ensemble pieces, but that second helping of solo Lugosi sadly never materialised.
We did get this though. With Universal holding the rights to the name (or at least being scary enough that nobody challenged them on it), Columbia made a Dracula film in all but name, it’s close enough to go along with, but it’s very much it’s own thing too. Instead of Dracula, we’re introduced to Armand Tesla, an altogether nastier piece of work…
During World War One, a vampire is prowling the streets of London. When one of his female victims is admitted to the clinic of Lady Jane Ainsley (Frieda Inescort) and her colleague, Professor Walter Saunders (Gilbert Emery), the pair have no idea what they are dealing with. As the girl is under their protection though, Tesla instead attacks Saunders’ young granddaughter Nikki instead, prompting the pair to track him to his grave and drive an iron stake through his heart, while inadvertently freeing his werewolf assistant Andréas (Matt Willis) from his curse.
Decades later and World War Two is in full swing. Saunders is dead, but Lady Jane is under investigation for the potential murder of Tesla by skeptical Scotland Yard detective Sir Fredrick Fleet (Miles Mander). Convinced that his undecomposed corpse will prove her innocence, she leads the authorities to the grave, but the combination of a stray Luftwaffe bomb and two hapless gravediggers has resulted in the return of the vampire. Forcing Andréas back into his service, Tesla sets his sights on the now adult Nikki again and only Lady Jane stands in his way…
It’s weird to think that this was only the second time Lugosi would play a vampire on-screen and even weirder that it’s not Dracula. Except it is. Kinda. Basically he is if you want him to be, but personally I’m happy with 17th Century vampire expert, author and now horribly evil vampire himself Armand Tesla. Despite not getting a good look at him for 20-odd minutes, Lugosi is absolutely on fire here, malevolent, scheming and cruel with a nasty, sadistic streak of humour to him, it’s one of his finest performances and he firstly relishes the part. He’s essaying the blackest of villains, but he puts so much into it, it doesn’t feel one-dimensional.
It helps that he gets to be much more evil than he did in Dracula too. His attack on Nikki as a child is genuinely shocking, lunging in on her as his mist licks around the edges of the child’s bed. God knows what the audiences of 1943 must have thought as it’s still jaw-dropping now.
His treatment of poor Andréas is vile too. After years of living a normal life, the unfortunate servant is immediately put under Tesla’s thrall again and turned back into a werewolf. It’s heartbreaking, but Willis and Lugosi both really shine together in one of the film’s standout scenes, with Andreas’ personality completely changing with his body to that of a gleeful killer, at least for a while. The werewolf effects are surprisingly good too, though the doggy nose could probably have been left off in all honesty.
It’s Andréas that’s at the heart of Return Of The Vampire’s most visually captivating scenes too as he walks through the rubble of a London that’s still very much under the Blitz. It’s a strange sight, something so contemporary crossed with the folklore figure of a werewolf, but it’s a huge part of the charm. In fact, the use of Nazi bombers is a huge plot point more than once and really adds to both the drama and feeling of a real world setting being invaded by the supernatural.
Return Of The Vampire isn’t all about the monsters though, as in Lady Jane it had one of the great heroic leads of the classic era…and it’s a woman. Played with no small amount of steel and wit by Frieda Inescort, she’s a force of nature, knowledgeable and brave, fighting not only against Tesla and Andréas, but against the foolish cynicism of Sir Fredrick Fleet who refuses to believe in what’s going on around him, despite the ever-mounting evidence. Her confrontations with Tesla are wonderful, particularly the beautifully framed one where she’s sat playing an organ as he looms over her. She’s completely fearless and having none of his intimidation. It’s marvellous to see and director Lew Landers reinforces her strength by keeping her in the foreground, taking up more room on screen than her would-be aggressor. Wonderful stuff.
That Lady Jane is both a woman and a middle-aged one at that makes her all the more unusual to be pitched as the Van Helsing character, but it’s an inspired decision. In an ideal world Inescort would have had a series of films with this character investigating supernatural goings on. Imagine that?
The final confrontation has everything, action, horror, drama and a lovely effect of a melting skull that is years ahead of its time, set in a gorgeous bombed-out church and accompanying graveyard and is more than satisfying. There’s no rushed denouement here like so many films of this era, it takes its time and gives everyone their moment in the sun, even if that’s the very last thing they want…
I’m genuinely tight on whether Return Of The Vampire is a near-classic or just an actual classic. It’s at times very by-the-numbers, but it’s relentlessly entertaining too and gets pretty much everything right. In fact, I’d go so far to say it’s the best vampire film Lugosi would make. Yes, really.
A classic then? Oh, go on then.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy