Holy Holocaust, Batman! This movie rocks! 1944's The Return of the Vampire was initially going to be a direct sequel to Universal's Dracula, but Universal threatened to sue Columbia (the production company behind this film) if they didn't change the characters. Make no mistake about it; this is a sequel in spirit. We open at a foggy cemetery where a werewolf creeps over to a coffin that houses the body of Armand Tesla, a 200-year-old vampire. Tesla has enslaved the werewolf and cast his lost soul under a wieldy spell. This is the first fright flick to feature both a vampire and a werewolf. That's a zillion brownie points right there.
The make-up effects are actually quite proficient. In fact, I'd wager to say that the werewolf looks better than the varmint in The Wolf Man. The first 10 minutes are sweet. I never use that word, so you know that I really dug the first 10 minutes. We're treated to tombstones, bilging rollers of mist, an overcast sky, and Bela motherfuckin' Lugosi. What more do you need? Lugosi's performance is delightfully compelling and doctrinaire. He had yet to turn into a full-blown wash-up, and you can tell that he's enjoying himself. Matt Willis is competent as the werewolf, although his ambulatory mole was a huge distraction. It jumps from cheek to cheek more than once.
Frieda Inescort plays Lady Ainsley, the woman who heads the vamp-hunting group of protagonists. She's a strong heroine. None of the other characters stand out, but they don't really need to. Something I liked about Return was the fact that Ainsley believed the fanciful talk of monsters from the get-go. It didn't take much to convince her that vampires and werewolves really existed. So that was a nice change of pace from the usual character tension you see with these types of movies. The pacing is controlled, and with a running time of 70 minutes, I didn't get a chance to roll my eyes out of restlessness.
That's another thing; The Return of the Vampire ends with a bang. Again, these movies usually exhibit similar behavioral traits. The endings are usually flat and abrupt. But not this one! There is a sense of closure that caps the film off with desistance. I couldn't find many setbacks. Of course, I'm judicious with my Z'Dar's, but this is certainly one of the better horror films from the 1940's. It stands above The Wolf Man and The Ghost of Frankenstein (I haven't seen House of Dracula yet). If you're fond of any of those creature features, this bloodsucking bash will put a toothy smile on your face.
Posted by Dom Coccaro at 12:06 PM