Friday, June 3, 2016

Past Misdeeds: The Return of the Vampire (1944)

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 anybody's guess.

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 vampire.

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 enough.

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 Inescort.

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.

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