It’s time for SPOOKLIGHT Classic, where we look at some of the older IN THE SPOOKLIGHT columns from way back when. This one, on the Bela Lugosi vampire flick THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (1943) was first published in the November 2002 edition of The Horror Writers Association Newsletter. Where does the time go?
And remember, if you like this column, my book IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, a collection of 115 horror movie columns, is available from NECON EBooks as an EBook at www.neconebooks.com, and as a print edition at https://www.createspace.com/4293038. You can also buy print copies directly from me right here through this blog. Just leave an inquiry in the comment section. Thanks!
IN THE SPOOKLIGHTT: THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (1943)
by Michael Arruda
Bela Lugosi is so identified with the role of Dracula that it’s easy to forget that he only played the Count twice in the movies, in DRACULA (1931) and in ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948).
However, Lugosi did appear in movies where he played a vampire other than Dracula. One such film, THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (1943).
THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE was made in 1943 by Columbia Pictures, and since Universal owned the copyright to the Dracula name, Columbia had to choose another name for their vampire. They chose Armand Tesla, a decent enough name for a vampire, but their better choice, of course, was choosing Bela Lugosi to play the lead role.
While Lugosi looks considerably older here and delivers a performance nowhere near as on target as his 1931 DRACULA portrayal, he still manages to create a memorable vampire in Armand Tesla. As always, Lugosi is a joy to watch. His is a dynamic screen presence, and he possesses the remarkable ability to frighten with simply a look or a line of dialogue. “I shall command. And you shall obey.” You betcha! No problem, buddy!
In addition to having Lugosi, THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE also boasts some other memorable bites— er, bits.
The film’s setting, for example, takes place in World War II London, a rather unique setting for a vampire movie (of course, the film was made in 1943, so the setting was contemporary.), and the war takes an active role in the film’s plot. It’s a Nazi bomb that unearths Tesla’s coffin, setting him free to “return” to London, and bombs have a direct impact on the film’s very memorable conclusion, as well.
There’s also a werewolf in the movie, so you get two monsters for the price of one. While the werewolf make-up by Clay Campbell is quite good, and he’d use the same make-up again with even better results 13 years later on Steven Ritch in the under-appreciated thriller, THE WEREWOLF (1956), this second monster played by Matt Willis is certainly and unfortunately one of the least ferocious werewolves ever seen on screen. When fighting two police officers, for example, rather than attacking their throats with his teeth, he boxes them like a gangster.
Frieda Inescort is Lady Jane Ainsley, Lugosi’s main adversary. How fun and fresh it is to have a woman as the film’s heroine in the “Van Helsing” type role. This in itself makes the movie worth viewing.
Yet the film does have its drawbacks, amongst them the neatly dressed talking werewolf, and a lame “stake in the heart scene” where the vampire hunter wields his hammer with about as much force and intensity as one of Santa’s elves!
Director Lew Landers, who also directed Lugosi (along with Boris Karloff) in THE RAVEN (1935) under the name Louis Friedlander, does a respectable job here, filling the film with the kind of atmosphere one expects to find in a Lugosi vampire film, with lots of fog, graveyards, and wolf howls. There’s so much fog that in one scene it’s indoors!
The screenplay by Griffin Jay is adequate. The plot is your basic vampire seeks revenge on the families of those who tried to destroy him, but with Lugosi in the film, with lots of screen time and lots to do, the plot is secondary.
THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE is not as good a film as DRACULA (1931) or even the well-crafted and hilarious ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948) for that matter, but it is still a showcase for Bela Lugosi, and as such doesn’t disappoint.