The Return of Dracula: Welcome back, champ!

The Return of Dracula directed by Paul LandresThe Return of Dracula directed by Paul Landres

The Return of Dracula directed by Paul LandresContrary to popular belief, the great Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi only portrayed the world’s most famous vampire twice, both times for Universal Studios: first in the creaky yet eternal glory that is Dracula (1931) and next in what many of us consider to be the greatest horror/comedy of all time, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). And then, for a solid decade, that infamous character, the dreaded Transylvanian bloodsucker, would disappear from the world’s screens (with the single exception being the little-seen, 1953 Turkish curio Dracula In Istanbul) until the spring of ’58, when two films would mark the character’s return in a very big way. In April ’58, United Artists in the U.S. released a picture with the very apropos title The Return of Dracula, while in the U.K., the following month, Hammer Studios would release its highly influential film Horror of Dracula, the first in a series of nine, most of them starring the great Christopher Lee in the role of the Count. But it is the American film that I would speak of here, a film that I had never watched before until just the other night. The Return of Dracula originally appeared as part of a double feature, the other film on the bill being The Flame Barrier, which this viewer does remember very fondly from TV viewing as a child. Featuring an intelligent script, very decent acting turns by one and all, adequate (albeit low-budget) special FX and some serious talent behind the cameras, The Return of Dracula today reveals itself to be a rock-solid effort, and not at all the risible camp fest that you might be expecting.

In the film, we see our vampiric acquaintance, here played by Czech-born Francis Lederer (who many may recall from the 1959 Filipino horror classic Terror Is a Man), attack and kill a fellow passenger on a European train. Stealing the victim’s papers, the Count then travels by ship and train all the way to (the fictitious town of) Carleton, CA, where the murdered man was headed to live with cousins. Passing himself off as the recently deceased Bellac Gordal, the Count ingratiates himself with the welcoming, all-American family. And just how all-American is this family? Well, let’s just say that their surname is Mayberry, and leave it at that! The mother, Cora (Greta Granstedt, whose huge filmography extends all the way back to 1927; this was her final credited film role), is a widow with two kids, and she has not seen her cousin Bellac since they were children in Europe. Her daughter, the sweet, soft-spoken, pretty blonde Rachel (Norma Eberhardt, whose juvenile delinquent role in that same year’s Live Fast, Die Young was about as different as can be from her role here), is an aspiring artist who is dating the next-door neighbor Tim (Ray Stricklyn, who would go on to appear in the 1960 sci-fi classic The Lost World), while her young son Mickey (Jimmy Baird) has as his only concern the pet cat who has gotten lost in a local cave.

With his Continental manners and handsome yet sinister good looks, Bellac wins over his newly adopted family, although the Mayberrys can’t help but wonder about his aversion to the bedroom mirror, his habit of disappearing by day to go off and “paint,” his insistence that Rachel not wear her crucifix around her neck, and his declining of all meals. But all seems to go well, until Jennie, a young blind woman in the local Parish House – played by Virginia Vincent, who would go on to appear in such classic films as I Want to Live! (’58), Sweet November (’68), and The Hills Have Eyes (’77), and to have a lengthy career in TV from the ‘60s to the ‘80s – is attacked and killed by something while lying in her bed. And more troubles arise when an Immigration official is attacked and killed by a large white dog, and when a representative of the “European Police Authority,” one John Meierman (the handsome and distinguished Austrian actor John Wengraf, whose immense filmography includes such psychotronic wonders as ‘54’s Gog and ‘57’s The Disembodied), arrives in town and asserts that the Mayberrys’ recent guest is nothing less than … a vampire!

The Return of Dracula packs quite a lot of story and incident into its relatively brief running time of 77 minutes, and features any number of well-done scenes. I love, for example, when the frightened scream of the real Bellac segues into the screech of the train’s whistle, and when the Count emerges from out of thin air at the train station in Carleton. How cool it is, when Dracula’s coffin opens at dusk, and we see his form lying there, in a casket filled with escaping smoke! And speaking of smoke, I suppose the producers of this film could not afford the traditional bat transformation sequence, and so here, when Dracula enters Jennie’s room, we see him materialize from a billow of incoming smoke/steam/fog. Other nice sequences in the film include the sight of Dracula walking through a cemetery to awaken Jennie in her crypt (call me weird, but I’m a sucker for any morbid-looking cemetery sequence in a horror film); Jennie’s resurrection, with Dracula telling her that breathing difficulties are quite normal in the newly revived; the murder of that Immigration official by a murderous-looking canine (offhand, I cannot recall any vampire turning into a dog before); Rachel going through Bellac’s paintings, and seeing one of herself lying in a coffin; Rachel’s first noticing of cousin Bellac’s, uh, nonreflective qualities in a mirror; the staking of Jennie by Meierman & Co. (in the only instance of color in this B&W film, a gush of crimson erupts from her staked chest!); and the ultimate fate of Bellac, as he sets upon Rachel and Tim in that local cave system. All wonderful sequences, and all very well brought off.

The Return of Dracula was directed with great skill by Paul Landres (who had previously given the world 1957’s The Vampire and who had also directed The Flame Barrier). Its no-nonsense script by Pat Fielder (who had also worked on those two last-named films, as well as ‘57’s The Monster That Challenged the World) incorporates some imaginative touches (whoever heard of a vampire drinking the blood of a cat, for example, as well as a blind woman transforming into a vampiress who can now somehow see?) and eerie moments (I love it when Rachel walks down the street alone at night and suddenly asks, out of nowhere, “What … what did you say?”). It is a script that borders on the poetic at times, such as when Dracula appears at Rachel’s bedside and murmurs “…There’s only one reality, Rachel, and that is death. I bring you death, a living death … I bring you the darkness of centuries past and centuries to come; eternal life and eternal death…” Cinematographer Jack MacKenzie – whose filmography extends all the way back to 1916, and who had also worked on The Vampire and The Flame Barrier, as well as one of this viewer’s favorite horror films, 1945’s Isle of the Dead) – does a terrific job here at giving the film an eerie feel, while the background music of composer Gerald Fried – whose work graces such films as Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (’56) and Paths of Glory (’57), The Vampire, I Bury the Living (’58), The Flame Barrier, The Lost Missile (’58), and Curse of the Faceless Man (’58), as well as dozens of episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Star Trek and Mission: Impossible – is wholly memorable, comprised as it is of mostly blaring horns and occasional strident strings. It is a score that might stick in your noggin for days after watching this movie.

And the film, it must be added, is very nicely cast, its three leads being perfectly suited for their roles. As Dracula, Francis Lederer makes for one intimidating customer, his Czech accent adding authenticity to his supposedly Carpathian background. He is never seen in the traditional vampire’s cape in this film, although his overcoat, worn draped around his shoulders, makes for a fine substitute. Likewise, John Wengraf, in his role as the Van Helsing stand-in, is also quite convincing, his Austrian background lending an aura of verisimilitude to his character. And then there is Norma Eberhardt as Rachel, as sweet and pretty a vampire’s target as the screen has ever witnessed. What a pity that Norma’s film career was not a longer one, as she is quite good here; very likeable and endearing.

So yes … all told, The Return of Dracula did indeed make for a nice welcome-back for the old neck nosher! It is not a perfect film, of course, and some inevitable problems do arise. For example, the viewer cannot help but wonder how Dracula ever imagined that he could pass himself off for very long as a distant cousin without arousing suspicions. (Perhaps he never intended to stay for long?) And the film contains a few too many phony jump starts, such as when Rachel awakes in her bed to see Mickey looking at her with a Halloween mask, and when Bellac’s hand suddenly appears on Cora’s shoulder. But it is surely a sold-enough horror outing, and a fairly serious one, and I do recommend it.


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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2 comments

  1. I’m glad you finally told us what happened to the cat!

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