From the DVD case: When Dracula (Francis Lederer) pulls up stakes from his native Europe and flees across the Atlantic, he tries to fit in by posing as the cousin of an unsuspecting American family. But when he starts sinking his teeth into every red-blooded thing California has to offer, he soon turns the Golden State into a Ghoulish state! (1958,b&w)
Mark says: The Return of Dracula is one of four horror/science fiction films produced by Gramercy Pictures in the latter 1950s. Each picture (The Monster that Challenged the World, The Vampire, The Flame Barrier, and The Return of Dracula) is scripted by Pat Fielder and all, with the exception of The Flame Barrier, rank at least a notch above the standard fare that was being offered at the time.
The theme of an old, family relative arriving to bring evil to a small American town draws inevitable comparisons to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943). The relationship between naïve and trusting Rachel, played by Norma Eberhardt (Problem Girls) and the worldly Dracula (posing as Cousin Bellac), played by Francis Lederer (Pandora’s Box), invites further comparison to the Hitchcock classic. Pat Fielder, in an interview with film historian Tom Weaver, noted some of her influences:
I was influenced by the original Bram Stoker story, of course – the angle about the friendship of the two girls. Also, I’m sure that Thornton Wilder’s film for Hitchcock, Shadow of a Doubt, had an influence on my thinking. It was fun to create a character that was so suave, so evil – so far from Transylvania, and right on our own back doorstep.
Miss Fielder also acknowledges Val Lewton (producer/screenwriter) as an inspiration:
I was very much influenced by Lewton. I thought Cat People was one of the great masterpieces. But I have always loved horror films and horror in general. I loved Poe; the darker side of storytelling has always been appealing to me, putting it in terms of American life.
With influences like Bram Stoker, Alfred Hitchcock, Edgar Allan Poe, and Val Lewton, The Return of Dracula was bound to be a cut above the popular horror film being pandered in the 1950s. (See my review of Cat People regarding Lewtonian devices (i.e. “the walk” and “the bus”) that are used in this film.)
The chief appeal of The Return of Dracula is its suggestion of genuine evil. Unlike movies like Blood of Dracula, the darkness is not cartoonish. Francis Lederer takes his role seriously, and is a truly menacing figure. Rather than the horror of vampirism being shown to us, the terror is more commonly implied. Throughout the film, we never see a punctured jugular or even a set of fangs. Instead, Dracula terrorizes his victims psychically.
One of the most chilling scenes is when Dracula enters the room of Rachel’s blind friend, Jennie, played by Virginia Vincent (The Hills Have Eyes, 1977). The build up is intense. Jennie first speaks of a premonition of death, and then is plagued by noises at the window. Later, Jennie is awakened by Dracula’s voice asking if she can see him in her mind. Jennie’s blind eyes open wide and horrified as Dracula descends upon her. There is no blood (at least, yet) but the affect is palpable.
Posing as an artist, Dracula is able to explain away his more bizarre behaviors. Sleeping all day, staying out all night, and having an aversion to the “vanity” of mirrors are all excusable practices for an eccentric painter. We later discover that Dracula possesses some of his own artistic inclinations. In one harrowing scene, Rachel comes across a portrait of herself as depicted by “Cousin Bellac.” The painting portrays her lying deathlike in an open coffin. Rachel, of course, finds this more than just a little unnerving.
As The Return of Dracula progresses, the suggestion of horror evolves into true portrayals of violence. In one scene an investigator (Charles Tannen; The Monster that Challenged the World) is savagely attacked by Vampire Jennie in the form of a dog. But the most memorable scene of violence is when Jennie is discovered in her crypt. At the moment a stake is driven through her heart, the film turns to color for several seconds, and blood vividly spurts from her wound. The effect was created by using a goat’s bladder filled with makeup blood. The color print then had to be spliced into all of the theatrical prints. It comes off as a bit cheesy today, but must have been fairly shocking for the time.
The final showdown involves Dracula being impaled on a wooden post. He struggles and twitches grotesquely in his death agonies, blood smeared liberally on his chest. Certainly not your typical 1950s feel good ending.
Is The Return of Dracula a great movie? No. But it is a solidly good film, and an interesting take on the Dracula legend. It’s definitely worth a view.
Look for Ray Sticklyn (The Lost World, 1960) as Rachel’s boyfriend, Tim; John Wengraf (The Disembodied) as John Merriman; and Gage Clarke (The Bad Seed) as Reverend Doctor Whitfield.
Directed by Paul Landres (The Vampire, The Flame Barrier).
Scene to watch for: Dracula awakes in his cavern lair and makes a slow-motion, foggy ascent from his coffin.
Line to listen for: “If my behavior seems different, perhaps it’s because it serves a higher purpose than to find acceptance in this dull and useless world.”
Bonus: See a more detailed synopsis of the film and further analysis at Taliesin Meets the Vampires.
Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ½ out of 5.