“The imagination of man at times sires the fantastic and the grotesque. That the imagination of man can soar into the stratosphere of fantasy is attested by . . . The Return of the Vampire.”
By the 1940s the major studio horror boom most notably typified by Universal’s Famous Monsters brand had all but dried up. This was bad news for many horror legends, including enduring cult icon Bela Lugosi, who had been consistently typecast as vampires and mad scientist types since he first struck gold as the star of Tod Browning’s Dracula in 1931. Before heading into a long, dispiriting run of playing second fiddle or headlining B-pictures on poverty row, Lugosi had his one last gasp as a major studio leading man in the 1940s. Although he had played Dracula knockoffs before in titles like Devil Bat & Mark of the Vampire and Columbia could not secure rights to the Dracula name, The Return of the Vampire is widely considered to be an “unofficial sequel” to the Tod Browning film. It would by no means be Bela Lugosi’s last great film, but there is a certain class & production value to it that would be missing from most of his later works, so it’s an easy film to underestimate and, thus, be impressed by the ways it surpasses expectations set by its B-picture contemporaries.
The Return of the Vampire‘s narrative setting is split between the two World Wars. The Lady of a house being used as a makeshift infirmary to accommodate the casualties of that war is perplexed when a number of her patients appear to be suffering from anemia. Their only other shared symptom? Two small puncture wounds on each of their necks. This, of course, means there’s a vampire nearby, revealed to be Bela Lugosi’s Not-Dracula hypnotist. As he sleeps through the daylight, Not-Dracula keeps a werewolf on staff as a permanently hypnotized servant who does his bidding while he sleeps. Lady Jane and her own staff of medical academics recognize the signs of vampiric activity immediately and recite plainly for the audience rules like aversion to sunlight, stakes to the heart, lack of a reflection, the entire crash course. Their fight to slay the vampire & convert his werewolf servant back to his human form is a decades-long struggle that’s blatantly stated to be a Good vs Evil battle in the most traditionally Christian of terms. The only real variation to the way this story naturally plays out in the Dracula knockoff genre is in its wartime setting, which introduces a sense of chaos in its blitz-style attacks & air raids that frequently disrupt the flow of the conflict in a refreshingly inventive way.
The Return of the Vampire is a surprisingly classy, well-paced & well-funded production that relieves the sting of more degrading works Lugosi was paraded through in the 40s & 50s, titles like Zombies on Broadway & Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. There’s a little Ed Woodian use of wartime stock footage, the werewolf’s Shakespearean delivery veers perilously close to camp, and the film’s smoke machine budget appears to be wildly out of control, but otherwise The Return of the Vampire is surprisingly convincing as a legitimate Hollywood production. I was at first a little weary of its Christian moralizing about the power of Good versus the pitfalls of Evil (especially because it’s antithetical to what audiences would have gladly been paying to see), but even that tension leads to a nicely played, calmly bitter climactic showdown at a church organ that’s all solemn grimace instead of overblown moralizing. The whole film has a quietly menacing tone in that way, with an intense focus in the imagery of hypnosis, werewolf transformations, and women & children being attacked in their sleep through blown-open bedroom windows. The Return of the Vampire isn’t as prestigious as previous Lugosi pictures like Dracula or The Black Cat, but it does excel at what separates these works from the poverty row B-pictures he’d soon slip into: atmosphere. That heightened sense of spooky, vaguely lavish horror film atmosphere is well worth luxuriating in, as it would soon disappear from Lugosi’s career.