Transmissions to Earth Presents:
THE RETURN OF DRACULA (1958)
Review by L.L. Soares
I saw a lot of horror movies growing up, especially ones that were made before I was born, thanks to shows like “Creature Double Feature,” but I still manage to find one, every now and then, that I haven’t seen. This is rare, because in the old days, especially the 1930s to the 1970s, there wasn’t video, cable and streaming sites all desperately in need of content. Back then, it seemed possible to see most of the genre films that were made. With the VHS boom in the 80s, until now, there have been so many new movies, especially horror, on such a regular basis, that it’s almost impossible to keep up with them all.
Then again, a lot of them probably aren’t worth the effort.
I recently caught THE RETURN OF DRACULA (1958) on Turner Classic Movies, and was surprised to find I hadn’t seen it before. It stars Francis Lederer (also in G.W. Pabst’s silent classic, PANDORA’S BOX, 1929, as well as MIDNIGHT, 1939, and THE DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID, 1946) as the Count. The film came out the same year as Hammer’s HORROR OF DRACULA, starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, and it’s striking how different the two versions of Dracula are. And it shows how behind the times American horror films of the 1950s were. Which isn’t to say THE RETURN OF DRACULA is awful. It has a few haunting moments, but it’s a rather bland outing for the King of all Vampires.
The 1950s were a time more focused on sci-fi (mostly monsters spawned by the atomic bomb) than traditional horror, so THE RETURN OF DRACULA is unusual for the time in that regard. It’s also a more independent feature, rather than a big studio film, so there are no Universal Pictures atmospherics to make it stand out.
Where THE HORROR OF DRACULA would actually inject some much needed “fresh blood” into the vampire genre, and it would do something amazing by making Dracula scary again, THE RETURN OF DRACULA is more like business as usual for low-budget American productions. As such, it doesn’t make a lick of sense, and isn’t scary at all. But it’s fun for what it is. It also takes place in modern times (well, modern in 1958), rather than the period pieces of the early Hammer classics. But the updated setting doesn’t add any shivers.
It begins with a group of men going to a mausoleum, armed with big crosses and wooden stakes and hammers. They enter a crypt and open a coffin, intent on staking the occupant, except the coffin is empty!
We then board a train, where a cryptic gentleman is hiding behind a newspaper. An Eastern European artist named Bellac Gordal enters the train compartment, and is promptly murdered by the Count, who then takes on his identity as he takes the train, then a ship, then another train to get to America. A small town in California, to be precise. There, Dracula assumes Bellac’s identity and goes to stay with the man’s American relatives, including his cousin Cora Mayberry (Greta Granstedt, also in EXCESS BAGGAGE, 1928, THE DEVIL HORSE, 1932, and BLONDIE’S SECRET, 1948), her teenage daughter Rachel (Norma Eberhardt, also in PROBLEM GIRLS, 1953, and LIVE FAST, DIE YOUNG, 1958) and bratty son Mickey (Jimmy Baird).
You’d think Dracula would have grilled Bellac first and asked about his family before he put the bite on him. If he had, he’d be more prepared for his American visit. But I guess the bloodlust was too much and overcame any sense of patience or practical research, so the Count has to wing it.
Right away, Cousin Bellac is an odd fellow, taking down the mirror in his room (when Rachel tries to put it back up, he yells at her, momentarily losing his cool). He also keeps odd hours, sleeping all day and only coming out to visit the family at night. He claims all this is due to his sensitive artistic temperament, and that they have to accept him the way he is. Which works, for a while.
Rachel is a good girl. She’s nice to her mother and even volunteers at a local nursing home-type place run by the Mayberrys’ pastor, Reverend Doctor Whitfield (Gage Clarke, also in THE BAD SEED, 1956, THE INVISIBLE BOY, 1957, and I WANT TO LIVE!, 1958). She’s also got a boyfriend, who is literally the boy next door, Tim (Ray Stricklyn), who is a bit of a wise-acre and drives around in a hot rod. But she clearly has a rebellious side of her own, or rather, an artistic one. Even though he is much older and kind of creepy, Rachel thinks Bellac is kind of dreamy, especially since he’s an artist and has traveled all over. Rachel’s been stuck in her small town all her life so far, and yearns to see the world. She’s also a budding fashion designer, always hand-making clothes (even more so since Halloween is coming up and people need costumes!). She shows her cousin some sketches she’s done, but he doesn’t seem all that interested.
Bellac is, however, interested in the nursing home, especially when he finds out that a young blind girl named Jennie Blake (Virginia Vincent, also in such great films as THE BABY, 1973, and THE HILLS HAVE EYES, 1977, as well as I WANT TO LIVE!, 1958) is staying there. Rachel has befriended her and reads to her every night. Bellac, I mean Dracula, starts to visit Jennie late at night, too, but instead of reading to her, he’s draining her of blood, making her sicker than she already is. It’s not long before she dies.
And yet she comes back, dressed in a gauzy white gown, to do the Count’s bidding, of course.
Rachel makes some odd discoveries of her own. Including the fact that Bellac never seems to be in his room, and his bed appears unused (he actually sleeps in a nearby cave in the coffin he brought along with him in a crate).
After Jennie, the Count turns his attentions to Rachel, with the intent of being kissin’ cousins (and much more).
But there’s a European police inspector in town named John Merriman (John Wengraf, also in THE DISEMBODIED, 1957, and SHIP OF FOOLS, 1965), who also happens to be one of the guys from that stake-carrying group in the first scene. And he’s snooping around.
Does Rachel fall under Dracula’s spell? Does small town America succumb to the will of the vampire?
This movie was directed by Paul Landres, who directed about a dozen other low-budget features, and lots and lots of television episodes, for shows such as THE LONE RANGER (1952 – 1953), MAVERICK (1961), 77 SUNSET STRIP (1962 – 1963), FLIPPER (1965 – 1966), and ADAM-12 (1972). The script was by Pat Fielder, who also wrote THE VAMPIRE and THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD (both 1957), and tons of TV shows including THE RIFLEMAN (1959 – 196) and BARETTA (1977 – 1978).
It’s funny enough that the family Dracula stays with is named Mayberry, since the small town they live in isn’t much different from where Sheriff Andy Taylor resided on TV. The Mayberry family tries to make poor cousin Bellac feel at home, but he’s so distant and stand-offish!
It’s also a bit odd that a man who lives by night would feel the urge to take on the identity of someone going to live in California, the Sunshine State.
And then there’s Dracula’s actual feeding to take into account. He visits Jennie in her room, and presumably bites her neck, but we never see his fangs or any biting. There’s also no mention of any bite marks when Jennie collapses and they try to revive her, and it’s not like she’s hiding her neck. How does this Dracula drink blood anyway?
There’s an odd scene, too, when Dracula first visits Jennie, when he hypnotizes her to his will, despite the fact that she’s blind, and he tells her that now she can see, and she suddenly says “Yes, I can.” Does Dracula have the ability to heal the sick as well? If so, I hadn’t heard of this power before.
It’s also funny that a quiet, sleepy town, suddenly seems to have a problem with barking dogs (or rather, wolves) and the occasional bat, all of a sudden.
As Dracula, Lederer is mannered and meticulous, with that strong European charm. He’s nothing like the more animalistic vampire Christopher Lee played in the more intense Hammer films, and seems to be of another time. A less scary time.
Like Lederer’s Count, we never see this movie’s teeth. THE RETURN OF DRACULA is bland and safe, and seems awfully old-fashioned for a time after the atomic bomb was dropped. While I enjoyed its quaintness, and Norma Eberhardt is quite sweet as Rachel, there’s not much substance here, nor any reasons to be scared.
© Copyright 2017 by L.L. Soares