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.
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.
"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....
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.
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.
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.
"In Hungary, or wherever I come from, the saying is: Speak softly and carry
a sharp stick. " John Wengraf as Mr. Meyerman.
Here's a neat little trailer with an exclusive speech by Lederer, uploaded to YouTube by CrowTRobot1313.