Monday, February 14, 2011

Wendigo Meets THE RETURN OF DRACULA (1958)

The film itself is less confident about its content than its title is. The most it'll allow is that the fellow played by Francis Lederer "might possibly be Dracula himself," but it also leaves open the possibility that he might be just another member of the undead. One thing it won't do is call him a vampire; Wendigo and I noticed the omission by the time the film was nearly over. It's odd, given how irresponsibly it brandishes the "Dracula" name, but by the time Arthur Gardner and Jules Levy were producing this Paul Landres film for United Artists, in the wake of Shock Theater's release of the Universal horror cycle to television, "Dracula" probably had more meaning for kids and drive-in audiences than "vampire." See also the contemporary Blood of Dracula for a modern vampire film with a very tenuous relation to the famous Transylvanian.

The two films we just mentioned, along with Landres' own The Vampire, were part of a short-lived American trend of modern vampire movies that was apparently aborted by the arrival on our shores of Hammer's Horror of Dracula. Wendigo feels that this promising evolution of vampire cinema was nipped in the bud by Hammer, which re-established the vampire as a gothic, period creature for another decade. What he likes about the fifties vampire films were their attempts to creatively integrate vampires in modern settings and tie them into modern concerns. In The Vampire it was the dangers of scientific experimentation. In Blood of Dracula, to an extent, it was juvenile delinquency. Wendigo likes the Hammers as much as any vampire fan, but they often fall short when it comes to thematic creativity, compared to the American efforts -- however they fare as films in their own right.

Francis Lederer is The Return of Dracula -- or maybe he isn't.

In The Return of Dracula the context, in a subtle way, is the Cold War. Its vampire, whose real name we never learn, is a refugee from behind the Iron Curtain. The film opens with a gang of five gathering at a Hungarian graveyard. Their mustachioed ringleader distributes crosses and stakes. They break into a mausoleum and take positions around a coffin, waiting for the sun to rise. As the sunlight fills the chamber, they throw the lid off the coffin, but find it empty.

Hungary is actually our best guess as to the setting of this scene, since the film itself is silent on the subject. I've found at least one contemporary newspaper review that claims that the vampire is Czech. In any event, he's on the run from a Warsaw Pact country, implicitly pursued by cross-wielding Communists, though the man with the moustache is never identified as such. Having managed to board a train, the vampire (whose face we haven't seen yet) attacks a newly boarded passenger outside a station. The victim is Bellac Gordal, an artist who's been allowed to go to America. He'll be staying with American relatives in a small California town, and his relatives at home wish him well with the assurance that now he'll be free. Since I know that Hungary allowed some people to leave the country following the 1956 uprising, this bit helps convince me that the setting is Hungary. The director confuses things, however, by having the vampire read a German newspaper (the Berliner Tageblatt) in one shot, but a Hungarian paper (the Magyar something) in the very next shot, which is supposed to be the very next moment, as the doomed painter Gordal joins him in the passenger car.

Artist at work

It's the vampire who greets the Mayberry family at the train station and sets up housekeeping in their upstairs bedroom and in a nearby cave, where he kills the Mayberry boy's nosy cat for a snack before getting down to real hunting. Because Bellac Gordal is an artist, he's indulged in his eccentricities, including an aversion to mirrors and odd sleeping habits.

Rachel, the teenage Mayberry daughter (Rachel Eberhardt) is fascinated by the exotic newcomer, but the film never quite works up the Shadow of a Doubt vibe we thought might develop. That's because the movie isn't interested in sending up the town's dull conformity as Alfred Hitchcock and Thornton Wilder were in their film. If anything, Bellac is a mockery of noncomformity, if not the American ideal of freedom for which we were supposedly waging a Cold War with the Eastern Bloc. Bellac makes a big deal of his freedom, and protests as if it had been threatened when anyone questions his habits. It almost makes you wonder who actually benefits from all this freedom.

Dracula style, Bellac chooses a weaker girl for his first real target before setting his sights on the more attractive Rachel. He attacks Jennie, a blind girl to whom Rachel reads stories at the local parish home, and turns her into one of the undead. At his summons, she can turn into a mist and drift from her crypt in the family mausoleum. At his presumed command, she can turn into a vicious white dog and kill a snooping INS agent. The government is looking up recent refugees from Hungary because a body had been thrown from that train. As we learn, it's not just the U.S. government that's interested in the refugees. The mustachioed undead-hunter from the opening, now identified as Mr. Meyerman (John Wengraf), appears in the little town bearing identification that assures him of instant cooperation from the local sheriff. Who is he, then? Who does he represent? It can't just be the Hungarian government, can it?

"Wheee, I'm a vampire!" Jennie (Virginia Vincent) romps through a graveyard (above) and pounces on a prowler (below).

As Meyerman explains his belief that an undead has escaped from his country, Bellac starts to put the moves on Rachel. He has hypnotic charisma, all in the eyes, but he's always getting interrupted by Rachel's boyfriend Tim. When he gets a chance, Bellac plies Rachel with a harsher variation on the late-Universal "strange twilight world" patter. "The only truth," he tells Rachel, "is death." Flesh is but an illusion; "the heart only beats when it is drunk with blood." It never quite works -- there are always interruptions -- but she still ends up in his cave with only a cross around her neck, and later Tim, to protect her from Bellac's power....

Norma Eberhardt didn't have much of a career, but she shows a knack for bug-eyed terror in this picture.

Wendigo considers Return of Dracula the best of the the Fifties modern-vampire films -- the best written with the best performances, and with slightly above-average production values. It has good cinematography by Jack McKenzie that emphasizes Bellac's menacing hat-and-coat silhouette amid the general darkness. The special effects (heavy on the mist) are modest but both effective and evocative. Gerald Fried's score is a little heavy on the Dies Irae sometimes, but makes more menacing use of Russian style muffled gongs as Bellac stalks the night.

That's exploitation! A sudden jolt of color marks Jennie's true demise.

Wendigo also feels that the script by Pat Fielder takes the Cold War angle a step further than the subtle satire I perceived and invites us to equate the vampire with the Communist menace as an alien infiltrator subverting small-town America and spreading his influence person by person. He does recognize a blind spot in its portrait of America: Rachel and Tim seem to be the only teenagers, not counting the invalid Jennie, in the entire picture. Rachel doesn't seem to be part of teen culture, apparently spending all of her time helping Jennie and other unfortunates at the parish house. That lack of a teen milieu may have hurt Return with contemporary audiences, but it lets us focus on the vampire.

"In Hungary, or wherever I come from, the saying is: Speak softly and carry
a sharp stick. " John Wengraf as Mr. Meyerman.

The Meyerman character adds an intriguing twist to the story. As it turns out, he belongs to a European Police Commission, a presumed counterpart to INTERPOL, but his supernatural knowledge on top of whatever official standing he has in his homeland make him a paradoxical figure. You feel like there's more to be explored about the apparent collaboration of Cold War enemies against an undead menace, and it made us wonder whether anyone's ever done a spies-vs-vampires story set in this period.

Wendigo considers Francis Lederer the film's strongest asset. Lederer was a former romantic leading man (he was Louise Brooks's love interest in Pandora's Box) and his expertise along with his accent make the plainly middle-aged Bellac a plausibly suave if not necessarily sympathetic personality. His hypnotic power is pure acting, unaided by lighting or other effects; it's all in his eyes and his voice. He comes across as a badass vampire, not because he can throw people around or fly through the air (the film's only bat effects are sound effects) but because he never freaks out at the sight of a cross -- he keeps his cool almost all the way through the picture. His nihilistic speeches are Return's closet correspondence to Joseph Cotten's dark misogynist rants in Shadow of a Doubt, and his performance brings Landres' film as close as it ever gets to the perhaps-unconscious Hitchcock model. Lederer (who would finally play Dracula by name in a Night Gallery episode) may not be highly ranked among movie vampires, but Wendigo thinks he deserves more respect, as does the film.

Here's a neat little trailer with an exclusive speech by Lederer, uploaded to YouTube by CrowTRobot1313.


venoms5 said...

Excellent review, Sam. I finally watched this a couple months ago on the MGM double feature with THE VAMPIRE. I thought this one was pretty good, but the second film was a true 'B' side support feature.

hobbyfan said...

Interesting to read that Arthur Gardner & Jules Levy, two producers associated with Four Star (i.e. Rifleman, Big Valley) were involved in this production. The things you learn.....