[Tearing Through Werewolf Cinema] 'The Return of the Vampire' Presented a Highly Unorthodox Werewolf
Welcome to a weekly series in which Doris V. Sutherland takes readers on a trip through the history of werewolf cinema...
...In The Return of the Vampire (1943), during the final year of World War I, London is stalked by a werewolf named Andreas (Matt Willis). Entering a crypt at night, the lycanthrope calls up his master, the vampire Dr. Armand Tesla (Bela Lugosi) and helps him prey upon the people of the city. But one of Tesla’s victims has a father familiar with the ways of vampires, and with the help of Lady Jane Ainsley (Frieda Inescort) the undead menace is slain by a spike through the heart. As a result, Andreas is freed from the curse of lycanthropy and becomes Lady Jane’s loyal assistant.
Twenty-three years later, in 1941, a German bomb hits the graveyard in which Dr. Tesla’s impaled body is buried. The vampire is freed from his slumber, and places Andreas back under his spell. Before long, Lady Jane is embroiled in another attempt to hunt down and slay Dr. Arman Tesla – this time, permanently.
The general impression given by The Return of the Vampire is that Columbia got wind of Universal’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and tasked director Lew Landers and screenwriter Griffin Jay with putting together a rival crossover. This time, the werewolf appears alongside a vampire – and not just any vampire. Bela Lugosi stars as Arman Tesla, for all intents and purposes reprising his old role as Dracula. Aside from the comedic Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, none of Universal’s monster mashes featured Lugosi as Dracula, and so Return of the Vampire has a distinct curiosity value right from the get-go.
But while the film’s vampire is a recreation of a past great, its werewolf is decidedly unorthodox. Andreas is not the slavering man-beast of Universal: instead, he’s a crawling sycophant who exists at the beck and call of his vampire lord. His model is clearly Renfield, the asylum patient who falls under the sway of Dracula, and with only a few minor alterations to the script he could just as easily have been a mind-controlled servant – the fact that he sprouts fur and fangs when under Tesla’s control is little more than an aesthetic choice.
The borrowing of Renfield is far from the only debt that Return of the Vampire owes to Bram Stoker’s story and its Universal adaptation. The film’s 1918 prologue is essentially a recap of Dracula’s second half, covering the familiar business of open windows, bite marks on necks, there-are-such-things intonations and a final confrontation in the vampire’s tomb. Then we have the main body of the film, which goes over the same ground at a slower pace: more open windows, more bite marks on necks, more there-are-such-things intonations and another final confrontation in the vampire’s tomb. This is the film’s main flaw – not only is it a rehash, but it resorts to rehashing its own rehash.
Whatever the script’s weaknesses, the film at least succeeds on visual terms. Although Universal’s rivals had often struggled to capture its flair for the Gothic, director Lew Landers fills The Return of the Vampire with fog-shrouded graveyards and moody London streets that easily match Universal at its best. Even the decision to use a self-consciously contemporary setting – with the London Blitz serving as a plot point – complements rather than detracts from the atmosphere.
The film also expands upon Universal’s Dracula by giving a more fleshed-out role to the Renfield stand-in: Andreas has a full character arc, leading to his eventual rebellion against Tesla. Here, we see the influence of the werewolf subgenre, and get a clearer idea of exactly what films like The Wolf Man contributed to horror cinema – namely, the idea of the monster as an anti-hero.
Despite some shortcomings that prevented it from reaching full classic status, The Return of the Vampire remains an interesting example of both vampire and werewolf cinema.
By Doris V. Sutherland
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