Directed By: Lew Landers
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Frieda Inescort, Nina Foch
Tag line: "The Vampire's Prey... a Beautiful Girl! Compelled to follow his commands! The blood of her fiancé on his hands! How can she escape the vampire?"
Trivia: Lugosi was paid $3,500 for his four weeks of work
The Return of the Vampire, a 1944 film directed by Lew Landers, marked the first time Bela Lugosi donned a vampire’s cape in over 10 years, and while it’s not a Universal picture [Because the studio had copyrighted the term “Dracula”, Lugosi’s character is instead named Armand Tesla], the movie is every bit as atmospheric as its classic counterparts.
In 1918, two of London’s most renowned scientists; Professor Saunders (Gilbert Emery) and Lady Jane Ainsley (Frieda Inescourt), faced off against the vampire Armand Tesla (Lugosi), driving a spike through his heart, and then burying him in an unmarked grave. Years later, following the outbreak of World War II, Tesla’s grave is unearthed when, during an air raid, an errant bomb hits the cemetery. Two volunteers (Billy Bevan and Harold De Becker), who are trying to clean up the damage, find Tesla’s body, and, believing the spike was a result of the bombing, promptly remove it from his chest, allowing the vampire to rejoin the ranks of the living. With the help of his werewolf assistant, Andreas (Matt Willis), Tesla sets his sights on Nicki (Nina Foch), daughter of the now-deceased Professor Saunders and the fiancé of Lady Jane’s son, John (Roland Varno). Hoping to once again stop the vampire’s reign of terror, Lady Jane teams up with the local authorities, who must work quickly to prevent young Nicki from falling under the monster’s spell.
Wasting no time whatsoever, The Return of the Vampire opens in a fog-covered graveyard, setting up the film’s gloomy tone right from the get-go. It’s during this scene that we’re introduced to Andreas, Tesla’s werewolf assistant. In keeping with the trend established in movies like Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man, The Return of the Vampire gives us not one, but two monsters, and even though its werewolf acts more human than animal (after his transformation, Andreas can still talk), his addition was definitely a nice touch. Along with its impressive production design and multiple monsters, The Return of the Vampire features several fine performances. Nina Foch is effectively understated as Nicki, Tesla’s intended victim, while Frieda Inescourt brings an inner strength to Lady Jane, a part that amounts to this film’s version of Professor Van Helsing. As far as the title character is concerned, Lugosi delivers his dialogue with his usual flair, and slips smoothly into the role he himself made famous over a decade earlier.
Aside from this film and 1931’s Dracula, Lugosi would appear as a vampire only one other time, in 1948’s Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein, and because he played the part so infrequently, The Return of the Vampire is a movie that should be treasured.