Wednesday, October 26, 2011

October 24th: The Return of Dracula (1958)

PLOT
In Transylvania, modern-day vampire hunter John Merriman (John E. Wengraf) brings a priest and a group of hired men to a local graveyard to help him destroy the legendary Count Dracula (Francis Lederer). But when Merriman's men open Dracula's crypt, they are stunned to find the coffin empty, unaware that Dracula has fled Transylvania and is now traveling by train to a ship that will take him to America.
En route, Dracula shares a cab with Bellack Gordal (Norbert Schiller), a painter who is moving to the small town of Carleton, California, to live with his distant relatives. Killing Bellack, Dracula takes his place and arrives in Carleton, where he is greeted by Bellack's cousin Cora Mayberry (Greta Granstedt), her son Mickey (Jimmy Baird) and her daughter Rachel (Norma Eberhardt).
Passing off as Bellack easily, Dracula becomes enamored with Rachel, who tries her best to connect with him and help him adjust to American life, inviting him to costume parties and to visit Jennie Blake (Virginia Vincent), a blind girl Rachel looks after. Intent on making America his domain, Dracula seduces Rachel and Jenny to be his bride, unaware that Merriman is in America looking for him and that Rachel's boyfriend Tim Hansen (Ray Stricklyn) is growing suspicious of cousin Bellack.
REVIEW
In the realm of horror icons, none stand as tall as Dracula; they call him the Prince of Darkness for a reason. Since his creation in 1897 and throughout the several dozen film, TV and stage productions (Dracula has appeared onscreen more times than any character except Sherlock Holmes), Dracula has become more than just a horror villain; he's truly become one of the greatest literary creations of all time.
But even great literary icons need to be spruced up for different generations. By 1958, the Universal era of horror was over and Dracula was no longer feared by children, let alone adults. In the atomic age of the 1950s, when audiences had to fear such destructive, larger-than-life monsters as The Thing From Another World, The Body Snatchers, The 50 Foot Woman, and Godzilla, Dracula seemed tame, perhaps even quaint in comparison and in desperate need of reinvention.
Directed by TV director Paul Landres from a script by Pat Fielder, The Return of Dracula was the last in a quartet of '50s horror/science-fiction films produced by Gramercy Pictures, the others being The Vampire, The Monster That Challenged The World and The Flame Barrier, all of which were either directed by Landres or written by Fielder. Recognizing that Bram Stoker's creation needed to be revamped for the modern age, Landres and Fielder decided to literally bring Dracula to present day America, as a way to distant themselves from what Tod Browning and Bela Lugosi created in 1931.
Never heard of The Return of Dracula? Despite the hopes the film would reignite Dracula for modern audiences, it's been largely forgotten by the public; only die-hard fans of vampire films remember the film, which plays more as a supernatural thriller than a straightforward horror film, with Dracula spending more time psychologically taunting people than biting them. The result is a mixed blessing; it's unique and different from any other Dracula film out there, but is sorely lackluster when it comes time to be a horror film.
Much of the problem comes down to the California setting; for one, it doesn't make much sense for Dracula to establish himself in a small town; you'd think he'd go to a big city like Los Angeles, New York or Chicago. The more important problem is that Dracula doesn't fit in a modern day setting. Dracula belongs in 19th Century Europe, with fog-enshrouded forests, dusty old castles and gothic cathedrals. To be fair, the filmmakers avoid the stereotypes of the '50s culture; nevertheless, Carleton, California lacks the gothic atmosphere of Transylvania.
Though the 1950s weren't exactly known for gruesome, sexually charged horror films, I was expecting The Return of Dracula to push the envelope a bit and was surprised to see it play relatively safe. True, it has some icky moments from time to time; a character gets his throat ripped out by a vampire in wolf form and there's a closeup shot of Merriman driving a stake through a vampire's heart in color. Most of the deaths, however, occur offscreen or lack any real blood. Dracula himself, in the tradition of Bela Lugosi's version, lacks fangs and never bites anyone onscreen.
That being said, Landres and Fielder are following a different film pattern. In this case, Fielder's script is based off of Alfred Hitchcock's first masterpiece, Shadow of A Doubt. In that film, an older relative comes to stay with his niece and her family, but as time goes on the niece starts to figure out that her beloved relative is a coldblooded monster. The Return of Dracula is clearly inspired by Hitchcock's film noir classic and while the horror elements are lacking, these suspense moments are surprisingly effective; Dracula's psychological games with Rachel are fun to watch and, more so than in many other Dracula films, the filmmakers have captured the sense of fear Dracula exudes very well.
That air of fear is aided immensely by the presence of a likeable female lead in Norma Eberhardt, whose Rachel Mayberry is this film's version of Mina Murray. More so than any of her family, it is Rachel who seems most excited for cousin Bellack's arrival; whereas Cora respects Bellack's odd behavior and Mickey seems none the wiser, Rachel tries to form a relationship with Dracula. Their bond takes a twisted turn when Rachel learns of her cousin's true nature; she revolts in horror, wears a crucifix necklace and is the only family member to fight back. It's great to see an actual character story arc in the movie, given that the other characters are generic stock characters that, despite being well-acted, do nothing memorable or interesting.
The casting of Francis Lederer as Dracula is an odd touch; in his late '50s at the time, Lederer gives Dracula a weight of age not seen in most Draculas, which is a nice touch. Though lacking the foreign aristocracy I associate with the character, Lederer's Dracula is appropriately foreign in personality and is a smooth talker, seducing characters as easily as he frightens them. That being said, this Dracula just isn't very menacing; he lacks any real intensity and fury behind his mask of cool swagger. It's a decent version of the character and if you like your Dracula suave and charming in the vein of Bela Lugosi, you'll find something to love about Lederer in this film. For those who want Dracula to be vicious and nasty, Lederer will leave you a bit disappointed.
As far as vampire lore goes, The Return of Dracula features many of the trappings audiences are familiar with; Dracula can turn into mist and animals, he has mind control abilities, fears the cross, and sleeps during the day; Fielder manages to add a few new touches to the mythology, showing Dracula can telepathically communicate with people and mess with their minds, adding to his suave charisma. One curious touch is that Dracula is physically hurt when his bride is staked, something I've never seen in any other Dracula film. Most of what's here is familiar territory, save for a few twists and that nicely sums up this version of the Dracula mythos; it's nothing new on the surface, but there's a small handful of twists and turns taken by the filmmakers that make the film noteworthy.
OVERALL
The Return of Dracula is an interesting take on the Dracula mythos that works in certain ways, but falls way short in others. Released the same year as Horror of Dracula, it's easy to see why this one has been forgotten; Horror of Dracula is a masterpiece, easily one of the best Dracula films ever made. By comparison, the black and white, film noir feel of Landres' film doesn't match up with Terence Fisher's gruesome, technicolor adaptation and let's face it; Francis Lederer falls way short of Christopher Lee's iconic performance, my personal favorite iteration of Dracula. It may be old hat and lacking in the horror department, but if you've seen all the classic Dracula films and are looking for the lesser known, b-level films, The Return of Dracula should be on that list. 3 out of 5 Stars.

Next Up: October 25th: Red Dragon (2002)

1 comment:

  1. "Much of the problem comes down to the California setting; for one, it doesn't make much sense for Dracula to establish himself in a small town; you'd think he'd go to a big city like Los Angeles, New York or Chicago. The more important problem is that Dracula doesn't fit in a modern day setting. Dracula belongs in 19th Century Europe, with fog-enshrouded forests, dusty old castles and gothic cathedrals. To be fair, the filmmakers avoid the stereotypes of the '50s culture; nevertheless, Carleton, California lacks the gothic atmosphere of Transylvania." Agreed so much: Hammer´s gorgeous Technicolor Dracula is much more exciting. This one is a decent, but a bit dull.

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