Although Universal eventually did follow up Tod Browning’s “Dracula” from 1931 with their own “Dracula’s Daughter” and “Son of Dracula,” the unofficial sequel has always been 1943’s “The Return of the Vampire.” When Columbia Pictures sough to revive Dracula for the big screener, Universal halted their efforts, prompting Columbia to basically deliver the follow up to Dracula but under a variety of different names and different circumstances. With “The Return of the Vampire” we have a great spiritual sequel that stars Lugosi returning as Dracula, but–not Dracula.
In 1918, Armand Tesla, a two hundred year old Hungarian Vampire prowls the English countryside feeding on locals and villagers alike. When Tesla’s chaos is interrupted by Lady Jane and Sir John Ainsley, both of whom stop him by driving a railroad spike in to his heart, he is entombed. For decades he remains safely encased away from human victims, but during World War II, he awakens thanks to a bomb dropped by the Nazis that releases him from his grave. Alongside his loyal werewolf servant Andreas Obry, the revived vampire lord now looks for revenge with the family that destroyed him.
“The Return of the Vampire” relies a lot around reminding you that Lugosi is playing Dracula, but you know: he’s not really, for the sake of evading lawsuits. So while Armand Tesla is a vampire lord who is draped in a cape, hides in the darkness, hypnotizes his victims with his eyes, and sucks their blood, he’s not Dracula. Although we all know who Lugosi is playing, and it’s quite clear Lugosi knows what character he’s reprising from beginning to end. One of my favorite elements of “The Return of the Vampire” is how ahead of its time it tends to be, implementing character Lady Jane as something of a pseudo-Van Helsing nemesis for the vampire villain. Frieda Inescort is very good as the bold Lady Jane who stands up against Count Tesla and faces him down, especially when granted the upper hand quite often.
Matt Willis is also very good as Tesla’s tragic second hand, a man cursed with the task of being his assistant and thug, who spends an enormous amount of time looking for ways to stop Tesla. The make up effects are surprisingly very good, and next to Larry Talbot’s Wolfman, Andreas is one of the better horror tragic figures. Lew Landers’ direction is fantastic often resembling much of the nuances that Tod Browning injected in his own adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel. There are so many striking scenes teeming with atmosphere and tension; there are even moments that feel like early Val Lewton. “The Return of the Vampire” is a great spiritual sequel to 1931’s “Dracula.” It’s a strong vampire film and one where the cast shines, especially Lugosi.
The Blu-Ray from Scream Factory features a trio of audio commentaries. There is one with film author/historian Troy Howarth, one with author/film historian Gary Don Rhodes, and one with film author/historian Lee Gambin. There’s the eight minute Silent 8mm Presentation Edit, a “home version” with the film restored as much as possible. Finally there’s the original theatrical trailer, and an HD Still Gallery that should serve as a nice bit of history and eye candy for horror fans with poster art, lobby cards, publicity stills, newspaper ads, and theater displays.