Monday, February 1, 2010

Wendigo Meets THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (1943)

My friend Wendigo and I take turns selecting vampire films for our weekend viewing; he picks one from my collection, then I choose one from his. The collections are a little unequal, but this week it was my collection's turn and the film at the top of the pile was the dreaded Dracula the Dirty Old Man.

"Couldn't we do something different?" Wendigo asked me.
"Why, are you afraid of this one?"
(If he isn't, he should be.)
"No, but the new Wolf Man movie is coming out and it's putting me in the mood to do a Universal picture."
"We've already done one."
"We could do a Hammer movie."
"Already done one of those...What's next on your pile, anyway?"

It was a Columbia Pictures film by Lew Landers with which we were both quite familiar, but if we were to go retro, I thought we might as well do what we would have done next week, anyway. But Wendigo wanted to know why I chose this one instead of a Universal or a Hammer, and the answer is that I sort of sympathize with the underdogs of cinema. Return of the Vampire is often disparaged as an exploitation film, a rip-off of Universal's cycle featuring Bela Lugosi as a second-rate Dracula and a gratuitous wolf man. But I've always liked Return because of the ways it differentiates itself from the Universal films, particularly the way it exploits its historical moment compared to Universal's retreat into the neverland of Visaria.

Bela is Dr. Armand Tesla, a renegade Romanian scholar who reportedly died in 1744 but had been so corrupted by his researches into the supernatural that he rose again as a vampire. The year 1918 finds him in London menacing a young woman under the protection of Lady Jane and Sir John Ainsley. Sir John, perplexed by the little bite marks on the girl's neck, consults one of Tesla's books and deduces that she's been attacked by a vampire. The Ainsleys manage to track the vampire to its coffin and spike it through the chest, though Sir John never notes the resemblance between the man in the coffin (who we admittedly never see) and the face on the frontispiece of Tesla's book.

Tesla's apparent destruction really inconveniences Andreas Obrey (Matt Willis), "some loathsome creature of the vampire's" in Sir John's description. Andreas was introduced to us earlier as a depraved, servile and fully articulate wolfman, but Tesla's demise transforms him into a human being whom the Ainleys basically adopt and rehabilitate. By 1941, Andreas is a trusted assistant in Lady Jane's patriotic work of smuggling dissident scientists out of occupied Europe. But a German air raid blasts the cemetery where Tesla's body lay, inert but perfectly preserved, and when two comedy-relief wardens pull the spike from his chest, the vampire returns to life, immediately reasserting his control over an Andreas who just happens to wander across his path. Now a wolfman again whenever Tesla needs him to be, Andreas will aid his master in wreaking vengeance on the Ainsley family, unless he should retain some sliver of the goodness that Lady Jane has instilled in him during the interwar years....

Tesla plans his misty revenge on the Ainsleys and their loved ones. Bela really could use an opera cape in the scene below to hide his painful posture, and he'll get one later.

Many people regard Armand Tesla as Dracula in all but name. Wendigo admits some justice to the charge, but he notes some important differences in the way this film presents the Lugosi vampire. Tesla lacks Dracula's suaveness and even the sliver of tragedy ("to be truly dead...that would be glorious") that Tod Browning's film gives Stoker's vampire. Tesla really puts the master in master vampire, since his primary role in the story is arguably as Andreas's mean-spirited taskmaster. Wendigo sees differences in Lugosi's performance, too. Bela expresses Tesla's bitterness and lust for revenge, which here seems stronger than his lust for blood. You might be able to say that Dracula is a monster on a beyond-good-and-evil level, but Tesla is pure malevolence with a grudge. Wendigo cautions that credit for this difference may really belong to the writers, but Bela deserves credit for the interpretation, which anticipates his return to Dracula in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein more than the Browning film itself does.

Tesla tries to put the moves on Lady Jane (Frieda Inescort's pioneering female vampire hunter) only to find that he's been played like a pipe organ by the devout heroine.

Wendigo regards Return as a landmark in the horror genre, primarily because it's the first movie to present the now-familiar conflict between vampires and werewolves in the form of Andreas's struggle to free his soul from Tesla's control. He also thinks it's important for embedding horror in the real world of World War II at the same time that Larry Talbot was romping through a Nazi-free Europe. As far as werewolves go, Matt Willis's makeup proved to be more influential than Jack Pierce's work on Lon Chaney Jr. The makeup on Willis is very effective, more wolflike in some ways than Pierce's apparatus, but also more expressive, allowing Willis to express Andreas's depravity at its worst and his despair, first when he loses his master and later when his master spurns him. The role is Matt Willis's one big moment in the spotlight of movie history, and it's a great performance from a man who mostly did uncredited bit parts throughout his career.

Andreas means something more in the wartime context than Larry Talbot was ever allowed to express. If Armand Tesla is an undead symbol of German aggression (his actual nationality notwithstanding) then Andreas is a stand-in for the German people. Just as they were liberated from the yoke of Prussian imperialism in 1918 and given a chance at democracy, so Andreas is allowed to develop his good qualities and become a useful citizen. But though he falls back quickly under the spell of the mesmeric leader (if the Browning-Lugosi Dracula is a kind of Svengali, according to some critics, then Tesla is Hitler), we're meant to understand that despite the atrocities he again willingly performs, he's still capable of redemption. Our attitude toward Andreas is what enlightened Allied propaganda wanted us to take toward ordinary Germans (though not necessarily toward the Japanese). They aren't expected to rise up against Hitler any more than Andreas resists Tesla until he is shot. But when Tesla refuses to save him and orders him to "Go into the corner, remain there and die," Andreas has the realization that the German people were expected to have once they suffered bombings and other privations. Once Andreas realizes that he has been duped, that his leader doesn't really care for him, that the master's promise of eternal life (or a 10,000 year Reich, if you prefer) was a lie, then he can be redeemed. His destruction of Tesla in a bombed-out ruin was probably many viewer's fantasy of what angry, repentant Germans might do to their Nazi leaders.

Wendigo thinks that Columbia Pictures should be given credit for not simply trying to imitate Universal but for trying to differentiate its horror films from and topping the work of the rival studio. Return's budgetary limitations are obvious, but Landers and the rest of the production team do their utmost with set design, cinematography and effects to make theirs a distinct vampire film. Wendigo isn't saying that Return did top Universal (Son of Dracula came out two months earlier), but Columbia definitely gives the legendary horror factory a run for its money with this film.

IMDB has a trailer I can't embed here, but you can go look at it here.


The Vicar of VHS said...

Great review of a movie I criminally have not seen. I need to rectify that as soon as possible, from the looks of both your summation and those gorgeously Gothic stills. Well done!

Samuel Wilson said...

Dennis Klotz has just posted a review of Return that is overall pretty admiring but more critical of Matt Willis's performance and the Andreas character. Check it out here

Paul Castiglia said...

Thank you for a very thoughtful post on an underrated movie - it's one I'm quite fond of and I too appreciate the film's setting and allegorical tone.

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