“The Return of the Vampire” (1943)
by A.J. Hakari
When we’re confronted with something frightening, one of our first instincts is to stifle its power through means of mockery. This could apply to virtually any facet of our lives, but it’s especially true when it comes to horror cinema. Whereas certain aspects of 1931’s Frankenstein were viewed as blasphemous upon its release, its sequels made talk of brain-swapping and graveyard-raiding as casually-acknowledged as cobwebs in a matter of years. Having arrived in 1943 and laden with so much classic genre imagery, one could scarcely be blamed for initially sizing up Columbia Pictures’ The Return of the Vampire as a cynical riff on the old Universal Horror style. However, these misgivings are soon laid to rest when the flick’s affection for the stories from whence it came makes itself known, crafting a love letter to the fright films of yore that nonetheless recognizes how it has nothing on the real-life terrors of its time.
In 1918, Armand Tesla (Bela Lugosi) held court in the crypts of London’s outskirts. A former intellectual who studied various vampire legends, he eventually became a creature of the night himself, stalking the streets whilst aided by his werewolf servant, Andreas (Matt Willis). Fortunately, Lady Ainsley (Frieda Inescort) and Professor Saunders (Gilbert Emery) put an end to Tesla’s feeding frenzy, driving a stake through his black heart and ushering in an era of peace…or so they thought. Over twenty years later, a German bombing raid manages to unearth Tesla’s grave, allowing the ghoul to rise once more and resume his fearsome reign. This time, though, it’s personal, as the fiend impersonates a doctor fleeing the Nazis and integrates himself into Lady Ainsley’s social circles, with aims on seducing the professor’s grown granddaughter Nicki (Nina Foch) over to the dark side. Ready to do whatever it takes to save Nicki’s soul, Lady Ainsley prepares herself for a showdown with the master of monsters, determined to prevent anyone she loves from joining the ranks of the living dead at all costs.
If you’re thinking that The Return of the Vampire sounds an awful lot like the Dracula sequel that never was, then you’re actually kind of right. By some accounts, Columbia intended this picture to be a direct follow-up to the fright fest that put Lugosi on the map, but when Universal threatened legal retribution, the most obvious connections were Etch-a-Sketched away and replaced. This is particularly telling in certain areas (most glaringly so in the rushed detailing of Tesla’s origins), but one gets the gist of things pretty quickly. The Return of the Vampire makes old-school horror nuts feel right at home before the opening credits have fully dissipated, bombarding them with images of fog-drenched cemeteries, wolf men on the prowl, and imposing shadows bearing down on unsuspecting victims. Even by the ’40s, such sights had since grown hopelessly cliché, but because director Lew Landers (reunited with Lugosi after helming The Raven eight years prior) plays them so straight, we become less encouraged to greet them with eyes rolled back. There’s no winking or nodding afoot in this production, just a straightforward story about an unspeakable evil encroaching upon the forces of good, one that clicks in spite of all the on- and off-screen horrors with which its audiences were more greatly concerned.
For all of the familiar genre iconography it heaps onto our plates, that The Return of the Vampire realizes such content’s cultural relevance has nearly expired is part of what makes it the wise endeavor it is. Setting the action during World War II — with the characters having gotten accustomed to blackouts and blitzes — is a master stroke, giving the story a forlorn quality that cries out for simpler days when mankind had only the silver screen’s supernatural threats to fear and not flesh-and-blood dictators. Thus, the script’s frequent assurances that goodness shall prevail no matter what, which would seem hokey as hell under virtually any other circumstances, take on more profound and unexpectedly touching connotations. Whether the actors were on a similar wavelength or just saw this as a silly horror show from the start, they all remain committed to selling the premise with a straight face regardless. Though he could do this schtick in his sleep by this point, Lugosi’s presence is creepily captivating all the same, especially as Tesla beckons Nicki to his side and taunts Lady Ainsley’s efforts to protect her. Inescort turns in a resolute performance as our heroine, and that our protagonist is a woman (when the part could have easily been rewritten for a guy) is a most welcome treat for such an early chapter in horror cinema history. Foch’s Nicki effectively evokes our concern, and while there’s nothing that requires Andreas to be a werewolf (seeing as how the character retains his intellect anyway), Willis successfully transforms him into a sympathetic figure all the same.
The Return of the Vampire is replete with narrative inconsistencies over which one could quibble for hours, but the film as a whole is no worse for the wear because of them. In an era when scenarios like those reverently recreated within its frames were losing their touch, this flick makes them work, exhibiting the same firm grasp on visual and thematic storytelling that gave Universal’s greatest monster mashes their impact. Earnest and atmospheric in equal doses, The Return of the Vampire is a genre gem that’s ripe for rediscovering.