Things appeared to be going fine for Bela Lugosi in 1943. He had a deal at Monogram that let him crank out horror films as mad scientists and scare the Dead End Kids. He was also back at Universal contributing to their monster titles that he’d launched as Dracula. He finally got to play Frankenstein’s Monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man after originally turning down the role. At the end of year he’d finally once more play an undead bloodsucker when Columbia released The Return of the Vampire. Because Universal claimed ownership over the name Dracula, Bela wore the cape and fangs, but had to be called Armand Tesla. But it’s hard to imagine anyone who bought a ticket and a box of popcorn that winter wasn’t calling him Dracula when telling their friends about Bela’s movie. The Return of the Vampire gave Bela a chance to rise again.
There’s a vampire terrorizing an English town during 1918. Lady Jane Ainsley (The Alligator People‘s Frieda Inescort) and Professor Walter Saunders (Dracula’s Daughter ‘s Gilbert Emery) discover fang marks on their latest patient. This leads them to head down to the local cemetery to locate the coffin of Armand Tesla (Lugosi). What they don’t count on is that he’s got protection in the form of a werewolf (Matt Willis) that does his bidding. But the plucky Lady Jane gets a stake into Tesla. This releases the werewolf from his control and he goes to work for Lady Jane. All seems great until the Nazis show up years later. During a Luftwaffe bombing raid during the Battle of Britain, the cemetery gets torn up. Two guys are assigned to fix up the graves and rebury the dead that have been shelled to the surface. That’s when they discover Armand with the giant stake in heart. They can’t put him back in a coffin with the metal protruding so they yank it out and get on with their work. Without the stake, Armand is back and ready for revenge. He’s not just going after Lady Jane. First he needs to claim her son and Saunders’ granddaughter Nikki (Spartacus‘ Nina Foch). He also needs to get control over his werewolf to make his plot work.
The Return of the Vampire is more than Columbia trying to cash into the monster game using Universal’s own star. Columbia changed things around so that the movie is set in modern England where the Nazis were still dropping bombs since World War II wasn’t close to over. Universal set their films in the past. There’s also a greater dynamic between Tesla and his werewolf that hits a peak at the end of the film. Willis isn’t just a rip-off of Lon Chaney, Jr. He’s not too torn up about his fate as he enjoys the immortality his hairy nature affords him. He just doesn’t like getting bossed around by Tesla. While this might not be canon to the Universal Classic Monster productions, The Return of the Vampire is equal to anything they were releasing during this era. He might not have been called Dracula, but Bela was back to take names and suck necks.
The video is 1.33:1 full frame. The 1080p transfer is a huge upgrade from the previous DVD release. There’s shimmer and detail on the screen. You get a good look of Bela’s face when he’s ready to sink his teeth into victims. The audio is DTS-HD MA Mono. The levels bring out the blasts of the bombings. The movie is subtitled.
Audio Commentaries are provided by three historians on separate tracks. Lee Gambin, Troy Horwarth and Gary Don Rhodes have a lot to say. Each digs deep into the nature of the film, Bela’s career and Dracula. Since the film is less than 70 minutes long, you’ll want to hear each talk.
8MM Version (8:19) is the original “home video” of the film. Columbia sliced down the film and used subtitles on the screen since there’s no sound. My grandfather used to buy these so he had something to show us on his home movie projector besides home movies. K Mart used to have a little section of 8mm films like had for Blu-rays. The quality isn’t great since basically you’re watching an 8mm film in high resolution. But revisiting the memory is priceless.
Trailer promises Bela is back in the role people embraced.
Still Gallery is loaded with images from the production, posters and lobby cards.
Scream Factory present The Return of the Vampire. Directed by Lew Landers. Screenplay by: Randall Faye & Griffin Jay. Starring: Bela Lugosi, Frieda Inescort, Nina Foch, Miles Mander, Roland Varno & Matt Willis. Rated: Unrated. Running Time: 69 minutes. Released: February 19, 2019.
Tags: Bela Lugosi, Dracula, Scream Factory