FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, psychological*
It’s been alleged that Columbia’s RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE may have started out as an attempt to make a sequel to Universal’s DRACULA, presumably without actually drawing on that movie but rather on the public domain novel. But Universal’s legal department blocked that idea, so Columbia came up with a “Dracula-under-another-name.” This character, Armand Tesla, inevitably reproduced the physical image of Universal’s Dracula since he was played by Bela Lugosi.
The legal complications might not have had any real impact on the script for RETURN, since its authors would have been drawing from Bram Stoker’s novel from the first anyway. That said, the writers also brought in elements foreign to Stoker, some of which may have been borrowed from contemporaneous horror films. Yet there are aspects of the Columbia vampire saga that are more faithful to Stoker than one sees in Tod Browning’s 1931 adaptation. For instance, though the script doesn’t exactly give Armand Tesla an origin as such, there’s the implication that he was once a scholar back in 1700 who became so infatuated with the subject of vampirism that he somehow transformed himself into one of the undead. This fragment of a backstory bears some resemblance to one of the origins Stoker gives to Count Dracula, who’s said at one point to have been a student at a college called the Scholomance, which somehow led to his vampiric descent.
To be sure, some structural elements just make good sense for the whole subgenre. The vampire needs to have a base from which to carry out his depredations, and he’s generally impatient enough to fixate on a victim or victims within easy access. Armand Tesla is first seen fanging an innocent woman in the London of World War One, and he likes the taste enough to follow her to a medical clinic. His activities, however, trigger two persons affiliated with the clinic, Doctor Saunders and Lady Jane Ainsley, to thwart the vampire’s initial attack. Angered by the resistance, Tesla tells his lupine slave Andreas (Matt Willis) that he plans to punish Saunders by making his small granddaughter into a bloodsucker. But the vampire hunters strike first, driving a metal spike through Tesla’s heart, and he dies, albeit temporarily. With the expiration of his master, Andreas reverts to human status and lives for the next twenty-something years with no werewolf-style transformations, working for Lady Jane at the clinic.
Andreas, of course, is RETURN’s version of Renfield, who in both Stoker and in Browning is a madman influenced by Dracula’s power, though in very different ways. The script implies that somehow Tesla has transformed Andreas, a normal human, into a hairy monster, though this ploy might seem counter-intuitive since Andreas does not seem able to transform back to human even at his master’s behest. (Late in the film Andreas is stopped by two cops, and though the wolf-man fights off the constables, having a lupine appearance probably didn’t help him avoid trouble.) Though the script does not reference Stoker’s claim that vampires can command wolves to do their bidding, this is apparently at the root of the writers’ decision to make Andreas a wolf-man, so that he would obey Tesla in all things. Yet it’s also possible that they were riffing on the general idea of supernatural contagion by having a vampire capable of creating not only vampire-slaves, but a werewolf-slave as well. The scripters may also have taken some influence from 1941’s THE WOLF MAN, where a werewolf (played by the then-ubiquitous Lugosi) passes on his curse to Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr, to whom Matt Willis bears a nodding resemblance).
Some twenty years later, Saunders has passed on of natural causes but his granddaughter Nikki (Nina Foch) has become a young woman in her twenties. She’s engaged to John (Roland Varro), the son of Lady Jane—making their relationship a trifle odd for a horror-film of the time, since John and Nikki are the movie’s romantic couple, yet are a good twenty years apart in age. (Almost surprisingly, Foch and Varro were both accurately cast with respect to their real ages.) A local constable heralds trouble, though, for he confronts Lady Jane with a recording by Saunders, detailing how he and Lady Jane killed a vampire. In a bit possibly derived from the 1935 DRACULA’S DAUGHTER, the policeman explains that the law takes a dim view of driving spikes through people, accused vampires or not.
However, fate, and the Second World War, intervene to make possible the vampire’s return from death. A bombing-raid by German planes unearths the spiked corpse of Tesla. Two groundsmen come across the impaled body, assume that the spike was put there by the bomb-blast, and they pull out the metal intruder. In due time Tesla returns to his unholy unlife, which includes asserting his mastery of Andreas once more and assuming a new identity, the better to get close to Saunders’ granddaughter and turn her into one of his own kind.
After this original twist on the idea of resuscitating an undead, the movie largely falls into a routine pastiche of the customary vampire tropes: the evildoer’s stalking of his victim, her wasting illness, the slow realization of the vamp’s true identity. The only novelty of the film’s middle part is that for the first time the main vampire hunter is a woman of mature years, Lady Jane (Frieda Inescourt). It’s also of interest that, whereas Tod Browning’s adaptation uses crosses and other holy paraphernalia in an offhand manner, the script for RETURN strongly emphasizes through Lady Jane’s dialogue the sanctity of Christian icons and their ability to repel Satanic evil. This emphasis also appears at the climax, in which Andreas uses a Christian cross to defy his master, propelling him to his doom in the sunlight. The script doesn’t provide any explanation as to why vampires dissolve in daytime but remain whole when they’re spiked/staked. In Stoker’s book, either staking or sunlight can slay a vamp, but vamps only decompose if they have cheated time long enough that they fall apart once their unnaturally prolonged lives are terminated.
The script is strong in terms of keeping things busy with lots of incidents, though RETURN never escapes a feeling of being a bit too derivative. The movie’s primary distinction is that it seems to be the first film to articulate the image of a vampire controlling a werewolf, even though Andreas makes a very atypical lycanthrope. This trope, though it only appears occasionally, has the distinction of having shown up in such diverse places as Jack Kirby’s JIMMY OLSEN comic and Whitley Streiber’s novel WOLFEN. Lugosi is satisfactory in the role of Tesla but the role doesn’t really give the actor any standout lines, whereas Inescourt manages to dominate every scene she’s in. The ending, in which the dopey constable breaks the fourth wall for the sake of a lame joke, has been rightly castigated by almost everyone.