Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Return of the Vampire (1944)

Director: Lew Landers                                Writer: Griffin Jay
Film Score: Mario C. Tedesco                    Cinematography: William O’Connell
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Frieda Inescort, Nina Foch and Matt Willis

In order to capitalize on the box-office success of Universal with their monster movies during World War II, most of the other studios jumped on the band wagon in the hopes of benefitting from the audience’s desire for horror films. Return of the Vampire is one of Columbia’s entries featuring Bela Lugosi as the vampire and Matt Willis as his werewolf henchman. The picture starts out almost comically, with what looks like a working man sneaking through a graveyard, only his silhouette visible in long shot through the fog, but as he walks closer to the camera it becomes clear he’s a werewolf. Unlike Lon Chaney Jr. in The Wolf Man, however, this werewolf calmly enters the crypt, wakes up Lugosi, and then begins recounting the day’s events in a proper British accent.

If you can get past the corny look and behavior of the werewolf--not an easy thing to do as he looks like a Scottie dog hiding in the bushes--the parts of the film with Lugosi are fairly good. Set in London during World War II, the bombing unearths the coffin of Lugosi, who was staked through the heart thirteen years before by Frieda Inescort and Gilbert Emery for attacking his granddaughter. Unearthed again, Lugosi seeks revenge on Inescort and once again attempts to tun the granddaughter, Nina Foch, who is now engaged to Inescort’s son, into a vampire and take her away with him back to Transylvania. How they’re going to get past the Nazis in order to do that isn’t really discussed. But like any good villain, Lugosi first has to risk his goal in order to stay in London to avenge his thirteen-year hiatus before he goes.

The production values are pretty good, certainly better than House of Frankenstein. But Columbia also made the poor choice of using a travelling matte shot for their transformation scenes of Matt Willis into the werewolf. This has the unfortunate effect of darkening the screen considerably and making what would otherwise have been a descent transformation a little too artificial looking. Elsewhere, the modern setting doesn’t really allow for any gothic sets, forcing Lugosi to carry the menace entirely on his shoulders, which doesn’t always work. Even with the fog on the floor his vampiric encounter with Nina Foch in the modern kitchen of the house is a little incongruous and robs the scene of some much needed atmosphere. And there’s a distinct lack of malevolence throughout.

The one bright spot is to see Lugosi in his Dracula cape again. It makes me regret that Universal didn’t make more of an effort to hire him for the House movies. Ultimately, however, like the weak horror productions from 20th Century Fox during the same period, the film is not a very good one. The reason for watching is Lugosi. And for that, Return of the Vampire is definitely worth watching

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