IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE RETURN OF DRACULA (1958)

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I’ve always had a soft spot for THE RETURN OF DRACULA (1958), a low-budget black and white Dracula movie starring the unheralded Francis Lederer as the Count.

There’s a lot that’s significant about this no frills black and white Dracula movie from the 1950s.

First of all, it was the first standalone Dracula movie to hit theaters in nearly fifteen years, as the last time Dracula appeared alone in a horror movie was in Universal’s SON OF DRACULA (1943), in which the Count was portrayed by Lon Chaney Jr., and he was called Count Alucard in the film, which never really came out and said if the character Chaney was portraying was Dracula’s son or Dracula himself. It was left open to interpretation. The film implied it was the original Dracula, but its title was SON OF DRACULA.

After SON OF DRACULA, John Carradine took over the role, but he was sharing screen time with the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein Monster in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) and HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945). Bela Lugosi returned to play the Count three years later in the horror comedy ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948).

So, when Francis Lederer played Count Dracula in THE RETURN OF DRACULA, it had been a while since audiences had seen a movie about Dracula, especially a serious one where Dracula was the only monster in the film, and those movies had all been made by Universal and had followed the same formula. So, there’s a lot that was fresh about THE RETURN OF DRACULA. And Francis Lederer, a well-known Czechoslovakian actor who never became a major star but still made a lot of movies over the decades and who wasn’t known for making horror movies, actually makes a very successful and rather frightening Dracula, albeit all in the most subtle of ways. In fact, I actually prefer Lederer’s performance as Dracula in this movie over John Carradine’s performances in the two aforementioned Universal Dracula movies above.

Lederer with his accent and cold, calculating, and dominating personality, makes for a commanding king of the undead.

And while part of THE RETURN OF DRACULA was refreshing, since it was not part of the Universal monster universe, another part was very familiar, because the plot of THE RETURN OF DRACULA borrows heavily from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943). In that film, a teenage girl begins to suspect that her favorite uncle, played by Joseph Cotten, is really a murderer wanted by the police. Here in THE RETURN OF DRACULA, the teenage girl learns that her favorite cousin is really Count Dracula!

THE RETURN OF DRACULA, which takes place in the 1950s and so it was a contemporary setting for its time, opens with an atmospheric scene where vampire hunter John Merriman (John Wengraf) leads a group of vampire hunters into a crypt in Transylvania where they plan to drive a stake through Dracula’s heart. When they open his coffin, they discover his body is no longer there.

The action then switches to a train where we see Dracula (Francis Lederer) murder a passenger, and then he assumes his identity. He makes his way to the United States, to California, and there he pretends to be cousin Bellac, the eccentric artist who likes to sleep all day and go out at night at odd hours. Fortunately for Dracula, no one in Bellac’s California family knows what he looks like, since it’s his first time travelling to the United States. He’s welcomed into the family, and the teenage daughter, Rachel (Norma Eberhardt) takes a particular interest in her cousin, since she also wants to be an artist.

All is well, until people start dying. Well, Dracula has to eat, after all! These deaths attract the attention of our hero John Merriman from the opening sequence, and he makes his way to California in pursuit of the undead Count.

While there is nothing spectacular about THE RETURN OF DRACULA, the film does have some notable scenes, including a decent stake-in the heart scene, and as I said, Francis Lederer makes for a really effective Count Dracula.

This movie may have gone on to become something more than just a refreshing low budget Dracula movie, if not for another Dracula movie which was released just one month after this one, a “little” movie by Hammer Films, called HORROR OF DRACULA (1958). Of course, HORROR OF DRACULA, the first Dracula movie in color, took the world by storm, and made international stars out of Christopher Lee, playing an athletic and violent Dracula, and Peter Cushing, playing an equally athletic and heroic Van Helsing. The film revolutionized the horror movie industry, and made a movie like THE RETURN OF DRACULA, seem pale and lethargic by comparison. Hammer went on to make seven more Dracula movies, six with Christopher Lee, and a multitude of vampire movies. THE RETURN OF DRACULA was largely forgotten.

Which is too bad since it really is a decent Dracula movie.

It’s also interesting to note that THE RETURN OF DRACULA contains a somewhat violent staking scene, much more explicit than anything Universal ever showed, and that it pre-dated HORROR OF DRACULA, which is the movie that is credited with adding more violence to horror movies. Of course, the blood and gore in HORROR OF DRACULA is much more explicit than anything shown in THE RETURN OF DRACULA, and all of it was in color! Also, the film’s hero, John Merriman, played by German actor John Wengraf, is much younger than the older “professors” who were the heroes in the Universal Dracula movies. Merriman is a nice precursor to Peter Cushing’s younger interpretation of Van Helsing in HORROR OF DRACULA.

THE RETURN OF DRACULA was directed by Paul Landres, who also directed another interesting black and white vampire movie from the 1950s, THE VAMPIRE (1957), a film which had more of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde plot, with the scientist in that movie turning into a vampire. Landres does a nice job with THE RETURN OF DRACULA. For a low budget black and white movie, the scare scenes work rather well.

Pat Fielder wrote the effective screenplay, and she also penned Landre’s THE VAMPIRE, as well as another 1950s horror classic, THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD (1957). She does a great job with the characterizations here in THE RETURN OF DRACULA, and the scenes between Dracula and Rachel are among the best in the movie.

Francis Lederer, who in a very subtle and understated way is quite scary as Dracula, would reprise the role in an episode of NIGHT GALLERY, “A Question of Fear/The Devil is not Mocked” (1971).

Forever overshadowed by Hammer’s HORROR OF DRACULA, and rightly so, because HORROR is clearly the superior film, nonetheless THE RETURN OF DRACULA is a Dracula movie that is well worth a look and certainly should not be forgotten.

This holiday season, return to a time just before the Hammer Dracula explosion, when an unassuming Dracula puts the bite on 1950s small town America, but instead of indulging in mom’s apple pie, he’s taking a nibble on young teenage throats.

A RETURN TO MAYBERRY, this ain’t!

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