The Return of the Vampire (1944)
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 – – –
[enter visage of Béla Lugosi as a cloaked vampire].
Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó (1882 – 1956), better known as Béla Lugosi, played Bram Stoker’s famous Count Dracula hundreds of times on stage before landing the lead role in the film version of Dracula (1931). On film he played Dracula one more time in Universal’s horror comedy Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). During the horror film cycle from roughly 1931 to 1945 we also see Lugosi as vampire Count Mora in MGM’s Tod Browning remake of London After Midnight, titled Mark of the Vampire (1935) and as vampire Armand Tesla in Columbia’s The Return of the Vampire (1944). Later, Lugosi would appear as a vampire-like persona in two more films: the British made horror comedy Vampire Over London/My Son the Vampire (1952), where Lugosi plays a sinister robot-controlling heavy called The Vampire, and in very brief clips in Ed Wood’s notorious Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959).
That’s it. Lugosi the vampire is really limited to 4 films: Dracula, Mark of the Vampire, Return of the Vampire and A&C Meet Franky. The Return of the Vampire gives us a glimpse of what Universal’s The Son of Dracula (1943), The House of Frankenstein (1944) and The House of Dracula (1945) might have been like if Lugosi had played the vampire role. (*Chaney was miscast as Count Alucard in the well-written Son of Dracula, and the capable Carradine is just ok as the count).
Like Universal’s House films, The Return of the Vampire is a monster mash movie that offers both a vampire and a werewolf. Fearing possible lawsuit, Columbia probably elected to stay clear of a man-made monster. The werewolf Andréas Obry is well-played by actor Matt Willis, who appeared in over 75 films. I like the werewolf makeup and transformations (which are not as fluid as those in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man). The makeup was done by artist Clay Campbell, who later created the nearly identical makeup effects in Sam Katzman’s film The Werewolf (1956). Compare the two:
In Return, the werewolf actually plays a lead role and he accounts for considerable screen time. The film opens with Andréas the werewolf entering Armand Tesla’s crypt.
This is the case of Armand Tesla, vampire, as compiled from the personal notes of Professor Walter Saunders, King’s College, Oxford. The following events took place on the outskirts of London towards the close of the year 1918. They began on the night of October the 15th -A particularly gloomy foggy night that was well-suited for a visitation by the supernatural…
Andréas speaks to a sleeping Tesla: “Time for you to awaken master. Time for you to go out”. The scenes of Lugosi, in cape, moving around the foggy old Priory Cemetery are striking and some of the most effective vampire scenes rendered on film. These were effectively composed and filmed with mood by cinematographer L. William O’Connell (Scarface, 1932; Charlie Chan in London, 1934; Cry of the Werewolf, 1944). O’Connell’s camera captures both light and shadow -we see sharp closeups of the werewolf and vampire, but also scenes in silhouette. For instance, early on we see a brief shot in shadow of Tesla in cape and top hat in perhaps the first vampire attack on a child (*I may be wrong).
We learn that Tesla the vampire was actually a **Romanian scientist from the 1700’s who authored a treatise The Supernatural and It’s Manifestations. Dr. Armand Tesla writes:
From the beginning of time, man has been troubled by the uncertainty of death and by the rare and horrible manifestations which occur in intervals in which the dead are known to return from their grave. Such people are known as vampires…
Return of the Vampire works on several levels. I like how the story jumps around different eras, starting during WWI in 1918 and ending during a bombing raid during WWII. Reference to Tesla, who lived in the 1700’s, let’s the viewer know he is not a creature to be trifled with. The cast is superb, with an older Lugosi looking fine as the lead, beautiful Nina Foch (who did not like this movie) as the victim, Frieda Inescort as Lady Jane Ainsley -in a Van Helsing role (!), Matt Willis as the werewolf, and especially Miles Mander as the skeptical Sir Frederick Fleet.
In Return, the werewolf actually plays a heroic role. He is Tesla’s tormented servant, but knowing the vampire’s weakness, he redeems himself and becomes Tesla’s undoing. Andréas drags Tesla into the sunlight and pounds a metal stake through his heart and the film-goer watches Armand Tesla melt away.
At the end, it is Miles Mander who delivers perhaps the most memorable line in the film:
Say you fellows don’t believe in this vampire business do you?
Yes sir we do!
[Pause, looking at the camera] And do you people?
**Actually Tesla is a Slavic name. The Serbian-American inventor and electrical engineer Nikola Tesla died in 1943. I’m inclined to comment that the real Tesla was probably the inspiration of the character, at least name, of Armand Tesla. Myths and pseudo-scientific speculations about Nikola Tesla are myriad, including he was from the planet Venus, and in another that he was a vampire. The vampire myth was no doubt perpetuated by the film Return of the Vampire and the use of the Tesla surname. Tesla in life was a significant scientist who identified and harnessed the rotating magnetic field and made early contributions to high-frequency studies and wireless.