The Return of the Vampire (1944)
The Return of the Vampire is an interesting, WWII-set take on the overdone vampire genre that gets point for having a female Van Helsing character. Sorry, I can’t say Van Helsing; due to legalities with the Stoker estate, even though this is an obvious continuation of the Dracula franchise – complete with Bela Lugosi reprising his role – the names have been changed. It’s not a mark against the movie, but the B-movie script with more than a few lingering questions and sloppy writing prevent this from being a true B-movie gem despite its attempts to reinvigorate the genre.
Lady Jane Ainsley (Frieda Inescort) and her colleague Dr. Walter Saunders (Gilbert Emery) go up against the vampire Armand Tesla (Lugosi) and dispose of him. Twenty years later, when a bomb set off during the Blitz unearths Tesla’s coffin, he is resurrected and bent on revenge against Lady Jane and Saunders. When Tesla takes a liking to the deceased Saunders’ granddaughter Nicki (Nina Foch), Lady Jane will have to stop him.
The Return of the Vampire experiments with a few new additions to the genre. Lady Jane start the film with a male partner, but after he dies she’s the one left to figure out how to dispose of the vampire. It’s not a perfect role, as she spends quite a bit of time bickering with the “scientific” man of the group – Scotland Yard detective Frederick Fleet (Miles Mander). Taking into consideration how rare it is to have a female lead who isn’t seduced by the vampire, I appreciated what Lady Jane is created to do; she’s a mother, a well-read woman, and one who doesn’t show fear when Tesla arrives. Frieda Inescort isn’t a wilting flower, nor is she a beautiful conquest; she’s a real woman determined to protect her family. I wouldn’t mind a series of Lady Jane movies that could have truly revolutionized the horror genre. What works to the film’s advantage is that there’s nothing different for the character if a man had played it, illustrating how irrelevant gender can be in the horror genre.
The script, written by Randall Faye, Griffin Jay, and Kurt Neumann, doesn’t just explore the boundaries of the genre through the female protagonist; they introduce and hone a supernatural world living just below the surface of our real one. The war is raging in London, with the dropping of bombs literally unearthing the vampiric plague that could decimate the world; in essence, the war and vampirism are the same. It could be too on-the-nose, but I thought it was intriguing that the script doesn’t lie to the audience. You have a look at the judicial system, something that never factors into horror films. Scotland Yard obviously doesn’t believe in vampires, and challenge Lady Jane to produce a vampire or else face murder charges. Unfortunately, this is quickly abandoned to turn fully into the vampire story – a missed opportunity – but it could just as easily have been another formulaic horror film without the idea at all.
Sadly, the script ends up failing the movie completely in spite of its good will. The supernatural element becomes laughable with the creation of the werewolf, Andreas (Matt Willis) who is Tesla’s servant. Whenever Andreas opens his mouth and talks, with prim English accent, he doesn’t become a character to fear so much as provide unintentional comic relief; on top of that, we’re led to believe his werewolf “curse” can only be lifted when the vampire is killed, and yet the man is walking around in broad daylight dressed as a werewolf? The worst offense is the short-term memory of characters. Tesla’s scheme is to gain entry into Lady Jane’s house by impersonating a vampire expert. However, Lady Jane watched Saunders stake Tesla at the beginning of the film, going so far as to comment on Tesla’s appearance, so why doesn’t she recognize Tesla when he shows up?! Also, its noted that Tesla is a famous scientist and yet no one’s seen a picture? It’s a pretty sloppy way to propel the plot and from there, I never felt truly invested in events because they’re founded on flimsy progressions.
The acting is good, and I already pulled Inescort aside for praise. A young Nina Foch is also present as the beautiful, Nicki. Unfortunately, she’s the typical female under the lure of Tesla. I immediately compared Lugosi and his relationship with Nicki to The Raven, only to discover that both films were directed by Lew Landers. I can’t say that Landers’ direction is any better; outside of the werewolf guy, this is a very similar story to The Raven. I give the edge to The Raven for taking what could have been a tired Poe adaptation and investing it with psychological themes. As it stands, The Return of the Vampire isn’t so much a return as a revitalizing of the genre. With its female heroine and hilarious question to the audience of whether they believe in vampires, this could have been a new direction for the vampire if only the script was so hastily assembled.
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Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
I need to watch a lot of the old horror classics. Gotta get a Bella Legosi fix!
Well get started! I have a whole section devoted to horror films you should check out!
In time, young child. In time.
I’m quite fond of this one, despite its flaws. The talking werewolf character is easier to take on subsequent viewings. I really like the score too, by the famed Italian composer Mario Castelenuevo-Tedesco. It’s a small gem.
The score is suitably ominous and dark! I definitely think it’s a gem for its female leading lady, and you can’t go wrong with Lugosi.