MAY 26, 2011
You know how we sometimes have two movies coming out that have pretty similar concepts, like Dante’s Peak and Volcano, or Independence Day and Mars Attacks? Usually, the one that comes first is the bigger hit, though there are exceptions, most notably (and, of course, most IMPORTANTLY) Deep Impact and Armageddon, was the former was pretty much just an appetizer for the latter. Well, unfortunately for The Return of Dracula, it was also one of those exceptions, as it was released not too long before Horror Of Dracula, which boasted color, a bigger budget, and Christopher Lee. And thus it’s been pretty much forgotten.
Which is a shame, because it’s actually pretty decent. After an early geographical snafu in which our vampire boards a train in Romania and ends up in California (with a shot of the Statue Of Liberty in the middle just to make matters more confusing), I was mostly on board with this low key vampire tale. I particularly enjoyed the first half, because that was the most “outside the box” before turning into a more traditional Dracula type story, with hypnotizing comely lasses and a Van Helsing type enlisting a young romantic hero to stake a vampire before sundown and such. This stuff is fine too, but I wish they had stuck more to the first half’s approach, which found the vamp posing as “Cousin Bellac” to a typically bland 1950s family, complete with a precocious young lad who liked to go exploring in caves and what not. They could have milked his ruse for more suspense (or even a few laughs), I think, because while the basic plot works because no one has seen Bellac since he was a young man, there is precious little of him being put on the spot or asked to do things that the real Bellac could do. Those brief moments are the best in the film, and I wish there were more of them.
I also wish he had killed the bratty kid, who earned my eternal hatred early on when his cat fell in a pit. Rather than help his pet, who was crying that horrible cat cry (the one that can make me late for work if my cat has decided he needs to sit on my lap or get a good belly rub when I’m trying to leave), he goes “I’ll come help you later!” and takes off to go see a train arriving. And of course he forgets, and then Bellac eats the poor thing. Screw you, kid.
I also enjoyed the bits with Jenny, a blind girl who was able to see him (and his true identity) in her dreams. The actress wasn’t particularly good at playing blind, but I liked the irony behind the concept, and her early “death” was a nice surprise; not just because I figured she’d be around for a while, but because it happens so suddenly, she literally just drops dead in the middle of a sentence (which results in the most hilariously blasé response ever from a doctor, who just sort of mutters “she’s gone” as he packs up his shit). She ends up returning as a “bride” of sorts, but doesn’t get to do much (actually no one does much in this; it fully earns its PG rating), and her eventual, permanent death isn’t as good as her original one.
Francis Lederer was a delight as Dracula/Bellac, playing him as kind of a slimy, antisocial jerk. No romance whatsoever to this version; even when he’s going after the female lead you get the feeling that he’s just going through the motions and would rather go back to his room and drink or something. Even his hair is kind of messy. While I doubt it would have made much difference in its initial box office success or its legacy, it’s a bit of a shame that it came along when it did; maybe ten years later the unique approach to depicting the look of a vampire would have been novel, but in early 1958, it had been a while since the last big vampire flick, so the off-kilter look probably wasn’t even noticed.
The finale definitely could have used more excitement, I must say. It’s a short movie (78 minutes) and at the 70 minute mark folks are still sort of putting their climactic plans in motion, resulting in a very brief, largely uneventful final “fight”. Speaking of the fight, what the hell is up with the random color shot in the middle of the staking scene? I’m pretty sure it’s from a different movie entirely, because I can’t see the filmmaker being like “We need this one shot in color, for dramatic effect”, because Schindler’s List wasn’t around yet to rip off (or fine, Andrei Rublev), so I guess they figured it needed some “oomph” and stole it from another vampire flick. The kid also pretty much disappears from the movie after the first act, it’s a shame they couldn’t have used him somehow. When I saw him I figured he’d actually be the sort of hero of the movie, like an early version of Stepfather II, but instead they just get rid of him and focus on the generic male love interest.
So it’s got some issues, but I sort of enjoyed its laid-back approach. It’s better than a couple of the Universal Dracula sequels, in my opinion, so that’s gotta be worth something.
What say you?