8/1/11

The Return of Dracula (1958) The Bobbysoxer and the Bloodsucker

Hello loyal Lair-ers. Have you been missing your daily dose of B-U-Double G lately? Well, I must apologize. For the last couple of months I’ve found myself having to wrangle an agreement on the debt ceiling, tutor Michelle Bachmann on U.S. history, and break up Mark Anthony and J. Lo’s marriage. (Hey, no one who appeared in Anaconda should have to marry Latin Skeletor.) Needless to say I’ve been busy, but now it’s time to get back to it. In order to get my return going, I thought I would look at a film that returns a horror icon to an era he’s rarely been known to inhabit. By the late fifties, Lugosi’s Dracula and the string of sequels that followed felt ruthlessly old hat. What better way to update the bloodsucker than by bringing him right into the open arms of 1950’s America?

Arguably, the better way was to make a bloody, sexy, violent movie like Hammer’s 1958 film The Horror of Dracula, but 1958’s The Return of Dracula from Gramercy Studios eschewed all of that to outfit its Transylvanian count with a poofy hairdo and a collection of suits that would be at home on the set of Mad Men. The Return of Dracula begins as John Merriman (John Wengraf) leads a priest, and a group of hired men into a crypt where he believes Dracula sleeps. Upon opening the crypt, it turns out that Drac (Francis Lederer) has already buggered off, and after loading his coffin on train, the Count knocks off an artist named Bellack. Dracula completes the artists’ voyage by ship to the United States, and soon makes himself at home with “cousin” Cora (Greta Granstedt), her son Mickey, and her ravishing young daughter Rachel. (Norma Eberhardt). Nosy neighbor boy Tim (Ray Stricklyn) suspects there’s something amiss with Cousin Bellack, and when Rachel’s friend Jenny dies under mysterious circumstances, it’s not long before Merriman shows up with his eye on the vampire’s trail.

The Return of Dracula is a low budget film that plays out much more like a thriller than a horror film. In fact, if it wasn’t for the vampire element, it would strike very similar to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 film of evil in a small town Shadow of a Doubt. In that case, Joseph Cotton is a murderous Uncle Charlie come to hide out in a sleepy town, but his undoing comes in the guise of his all too smart niece played by Theresa Wright for whom he harbors a lecherous desire. Like Uncle Charlie, Dracula should have left the young gals alone, and he might have had a shot at blending into America unnoticed/ It’s somewhat baffling why Dracula would want to hide out with an average Middle American family. Sleeping all day is not exactly considered normal behavior after all. The Return of Dracula naturally doesn’t spend much time explaining itself; it’s more interested in having Lederer’s Count leer at Eberhardt. In a way it’s not spiritually unlike a pre-historic version of True Blood either. Sure Lederer is no Bill or Eric, but he does kind of look like a cross between Greg Proops, Luigi Pistilli, and Steve Martin in My Blue Heaven. That has to work for some ladies, right?

Director Paul Landres was a journeyman television director working on everything from Flipper and Adam-12 to Daniel Boone and Sky King, but amongst the few feature films he directed there is a pair of horror films with bite. The first, 1957’s The Vampire, concerned a scientist who turns himself into a bloodthirsty monster after ingesting an experimental drug made from vampire bat blood.  He followed that up with The Return of Dracula. In both cases Landres was working from a script by Pat Fielder who also penned 1957’s The Monster that Challenged the World and the 1981 made for TV disaster flick Goliath Awaits. Bringing Dracula into the modern era was an interesting move, one what would be recreated some fifteen years later by Hammer films in the middling Dracula 1972 A.D. (1972) and for laughs in the 1979 George Hamilton flick Love at First Bite as well as countless other times. Ultimately, The Return of Dracula is neither horrific nor thrilling enough to score on either front. It never moves beyond the promise of Dracula in the 50’s as I wished it would have. It needed drag (Drag-u-la?)  races, the Count at a sock hop, or at least Transylvania’s number one son sharing a malted with someone, but alas it was not meant to be.

Before I close this out, I would like to take a moment to talk about the two main actors because they are what really made the redeeming parts of Return of Dracula succeed. Francis Lederer is an actor that I was completely unfamiliar with before watching this film, and I think it’s a shame he spent much of his career playing small roles as baddies or spies. The Czech actor brings to Dracula a quiet menace, a lecherous quality without being a complete cad, and a gentle sophistication diametrically opposed to the bloodthirsty monster inside. While Lederer never landed another marquee role, he did play Dracula once more in a 1971 episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, his last onscreen role. Costarring with Lederer as the object of his affections was actress Norma Eberhardt. The picture of 1950’s female innocence, Eberhardt also instilled his character with brains to match her beauty. While Norma never made much of a name for herself, she did also appear in an exploitation classic, the campy 1953 reform school film Problem Girls. 

The Return of Dracula did not hail the second coming of a horror icon (as Hammer films was busy doing on the other side of the pond), but it does hint at the future of the genre. Taking the vampire out of the gothic setting into a modern age is what I believe three fourths of present day entertainment is about after all. What The Return of Dracula lacks in plot development, it makes up for with interesting performances and a premise that almost makes good on its promise. While the Return of Dracula wasn’t all that great, I hope you think that the return of the ever lovin’ blue eye’d Bugg worked out better. This month will lead up to the third anniversary of The LBL, and I just can’t let a celebration like that go on without me can I? So check back tomorrow for another special post, and until then, it’s good to be back folks. See you soon.

Bugg Rating

5 comments:

  1. Not my kind of film, but I'm glad to read about it anyway. Welcome back!

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  2. This is a pleasant Monday surprise. Glad to see you back in the lair.

    I think you hit this one right on the head, from what I remember. Lederer really impressed me here too, but the plot isn't much. Still wouldn't mind watching it again one day.

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  3. Let me get on the band wagon and welcome you back. This was definitely a good way to get the roller skates back on. While you gave the movie a lukewarm review...I'll admit I'm intrigued. Watching a Dracula movie (no matter the era or context) is always a great source of comfort food for me. While I won't crawl over broken glass to see this, I'll give it a go if I ever happen to see it on cable.

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  4. Yeah, I've never seen Return of Dracula, but who cares about the movie, it's just great to have you back around! There was a void so deep, even Mandingo couldn't fill it.

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  5. This was the first vampire movie I ever saw, at a matinee in the early 60's--it impressed me no end, not only because of the quiet menace of Lederer's performance, but the sensuousness of his seduction of Rachel, making no bones about the fact that she would die as a result of a liaison. Very creepy. Note: there's a sweet little color insert shot when vampire Jenny is staked, which made the audience squirm--still works with modern viewers, too!

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