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Running Time: 70 Minutes
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Nina Foch, Miles Mander
Written by: Griffin Jay
Directed by: Lew Landers
Retail Price: $19.95
Features: Theatrical Trailers
Specs: 1.33:1 Full Screen, English Dolby Digital Mono, English Subtitles, French Subtitles, Spanish Subtitles, Japanese Subtitles, English Closed Captions, Scene Selections (28 Scenes)
Released: August 13th, 2002
Ah, the many, many ways that Bela Lugosi could take a cape and make it his own. Following a successful stage tour as the greatest vampire of them all, Lugosi landed the film role (by default, since Lon Chaney, Sr. died before filming was to begin). The film, made in the still-early days of sound, may have been directed by Tod ("Freaks") Browning, but, today comes across as a stiff, stifling theater-on-film presentation; but, oh, that Bela! Sinking his teeth into the role, as if he knew it would be the ONLY great role ever offered him, Lugosi embodies the Eastern-European vampire with style and panache, and that cape, of course. More than a decade later, the cape would come out again for a role in an Abbot and Costello comedy, "Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein," quite easily the best film the comedy duo ever made, and Lugosi and his cape would walk away with the movie. Lugosi's Dracula rises above the gags and gimmicks because of Lugosi's immense intensity in the cape-covered role. In between these two Universal appearances as "The Count," Lugosi switched to the Columbia studios for the surprisingly contemporary thriller, "The Return of the Vampire." Since Universal had dibs on the trademarked title of "Dracula," in "Return of the Vampire," the cape this time belongs to Armand Tesla, while everything surrounding him most assuredly belongs to the lexicon of Dracula lore.
There's nothing stagy about this endeavor, though. "Return of the Vampire" is one of the more atmospheric entries in vampiric filmography. Everything is very tastefully done, from the cemetary sets to the parlors of London. A war-torn london to be precise. It's not enough that the poor citizens of London have the Blitz hanging over their heads, but now a vampire walks amongst them, as well. For Tesla, guided by his werewolvian servant, Sir Frederick Fleet, prowls the city in search of a lady fair. Fleet is portrayed by yet another Universal character actor, Miles Mander, who was quite effective in supporting roles for Hitchcock and other British directors. Fleet's make-up may leave a lot to be desired, but, his character becomes more than just the symbolic evil dominated by evil, sir frederick puts his heart into his work, with results that often bring a well-deserved smile to the face. As the love interest, Nina Foch shows the promise that would turn her into a savvy character actress in her later career: "An American in Paris," "The Ten Commandments," "Spartacus." Here, here Nicki Saunders may be pale and frail, but there's strength in Foch's characterization.
"Retun of the Vampire," in the final analysis, may take itself a bit too seriously, and whatever originality the film has can be contributed to the intrigueing time frame. Make no mistake, though, if this same script were being filmed today, it would most likely be titled, "Dracula Redux." The film's structure is quite alarming at first, and not wanting to spoil things, let's just say that when you think you're at the beginning of the story, you're really not. Quentin Tarantino would love this structure!
You can tell almost immediately that "Return of the Vampire" IS not a Universal feature, Columbia's presentation is passable, though not up to the standards which the former studios doles out on its classic horror releases. The black and white picture is agreeable, but the print used for the transfer has its share of wear and tear. Speckles pop up on an ongoing basis as well as several scratches and nicks. "The Return of the Vampire" is in rougher shape than a film from 1944 ought to be. The full-framed feature does however get very high marks for its preservation of the atmospheric set pieces.
Like the video presentation, Columbia's monaural soundtrack is an iffy proposition. Distortion is evident the higher the volume goes, and there are several instances of cross-talking, where the voices will seem to fantastically float around without discretion. Probably not the best mono soundtrack, but, probably the best source elements have deteriorated so much that a better presentation could not be possible. Columbia seems to have dropped a few of the volumnous subtitles for this feature; only four remain: English, French, Spanish and Japanese. I don't know about anyone else, but, I've come to look forward to those Thai subtitles on Columbia features.
In keeping with the themes of the film, "The Return of the Vampire" comes with a bat shaped cursor to make your selections with, a nice touch. Though no trailer for the film itself is present, Columbia offers up the trailers (widescreen, no less) for Francis Ford Coppola's "Bram Stoker's Dracula" as well as Hammer's legendary "The Revenge of Frankenstein."
Anyone looking for a different take on a familiar tale should check out "Return of the Vampire." Lugosi is possibly better here than in Browning's "Dracula;" but without the memorable lines. Columbia could have really been a contender in the horror genre if they had upped their budgets a bit. Once the 1950's rolled around, though, Columbia would really rule in the fantasy genre, as well as sci-fi; but oh, what horrors we could've had....