Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.
Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or
improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if
you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can
be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.
Armand Tesla, (Bela Lugosi) vampire has a grand old time sucking the blood of
the British and ordering his mind-controlled, talking werewolf slave Andreas
(Matt Willis) around, until the fearless vampire hunting duo of scientist(!)
Lady Jane Ainsley (Frieda Inescort) and her mentor, Professor Walter Saunders
(Gilbert Emery) put a stake through his heart.
About twenty years later, during World War II, Saunders dies, leaving behind
a manuscript describing his and Lady Jane's legally dubious adventures in
staking a man in his sleep. It could really get the good Lady in trouble with
her copper friend Sir Frederick Fleet (Miles Mander), who quickly arranges the
exhumation of Tesla's body after reading the manuscript and having a little talk
with the scientist. Before that wonderful event can take place, the combined
unhappy circumstances of an especially unluckily falling bomb and a gravedigger
who likes to pull stakes out of corpses revive Tesla.
Not surprisingly, the vampire has revenge on his mind. Quickly he has brought
Andreas - who is now working as Lady Jane's servant - under his control again
and uses the hypnotized wolfman to acquire a new identity from an unlucky
scientist Andreas was supposed to help smuggle into the country. Tesla uses his
new name to get close to Saunders' granddaughter Nicki (Nina Foch) and Lady
Jane. It doesn't take the good lady too long to figure out that the so-called
Dr. Bruckner isn't exactly what he seems, but it will take all her determination
to save Nicki and the young woman's fiancée John (Roland Varno), who just
happens to be her own nephew, from Tesla's revenge.
After wading through half of the terrible movies which make up the
Universal Cult Horror Collection I had nearly given up hope for
so-called classic horror beyond the obvious films. Fortunately, The Return
of the Vampire has come along to restore my faith. It's just too bad that
it's a Columbia production and not part of Universal's crappy horror set, so
there's still nothing in that one worth the money I paid for it.
Be that as it may, this film is of a whole different calibre than my last
expeditions into 30s and 40s filmmaking. While it's obviously done on the cheap,
Return's director Lew Landers (not usually praised for being all that
competent) uses much of what could have been learned from the first and second
generation of Universal's horror films. There's the shadow play that harkens
back to expressionist silent movies, the gothic sets, the (after my last
experiences surprising) gliding camera work, the fog - in short all the visual
elements one can hope for in a film of this vintage, brought together with not
inspired but expert hand.
Return is also quite pioneering in its use of a very contemporary
wartime London as backdrop for its gothic trappings in a time when many horror
movies - and especially vampire movies - still tended to take place in the past,
as far away from the daily experience of their audience as possible.
We don't see that much of the Blitz or of ruined London, but Landers
puts in enough of it that the viewer can hardly ignore the subtext of a modern
horror taking its part in reawakening an older horror.
What the contemporary audience of 1944 made of this aspect of the film is
The script doesn't always fare as well as Landers' direction. Some of the
film's ideas, especially Andreas the talking wolfman are a bit too silly for
their own good and would fit much better into a monster mash than into this
comparatively serious film. I also found it hard to swallow that Lady Jane
doesn't recognize Tesla at once. You'd think she has staked so many people in
her career that she just forgot this particular one.
Fortunately, the script also has its good sides, first and foremost casting
Lady Jane as a competent and determined chief vampire hunter, as far as I know
the first time we witness a middle-aged woman put into that place. Even in this
post-Buffy age this kind of female lead is not exactly a matter of
course, so it is all the more surprising how normal this much older film treats
her and her position. Of course and alas, the film doesn't keep its surprising
brand of feminism up all the time, and Lady Jane and her policeman assistant are
relegated to waiting in the sidelines when it comes to actively dispatching the
The finale is not worth all that much. There's too much hand of fate and too
little planned action in it. Worse, the actual mechanics of Tesla's demise are
based on a character arc of Andreas the film doesn't build up believably
The ending could probably have been saved if only Matt Willis' acting as
Andreas would have been a bit more subtle and/or his wolfman make-up less cuddly
and cute. The latter is very much a problem not just of this particular movie,
but of the whole cycle of early wolfman films. As it stands, Willis is also the
most whiny wolfman around. In his way, he fits perfectly to Nina Foch, who does
look very nice indeed but really should have piped down the melodramatics.
Both Willis and Foch are further hampered by having to play most of their
scenes alongside the two dominant actors in the film in form of Lugosi and
Dear Bela must have had a very good week while filming this. Lugosi's
remarkable screen presence is always a given, even in the late phase of his
career, but the subtlety he was capable of was often drowned out by his love for
grand gestures (and really, the shabbiness of most of the productions he worked
in). Somehow, the great man managed to find a very fine middle path between
grand theatricality and subtlety for this film, and his performance is all the
better for it.
Frieda Inescort is Lugosi's perfect adversary here. Where Lugosi is all
menace and slimy charm, her Lady Jane radiates the perfect mixture of calmness
and steely determination while never overplaying it to become the insufferable
blowhard the elder vampire hunter before Peter Cushing so often became.