Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Review: 'The Return of Dracula' (1958)

Atom-Age and Cold-War anxiety rendered Gothic supernatural horror old-fashioned for most of the 1950s. The Frankenstein Monster and Dracula were supplanted by giant bugs and ants, the tide only turning toward the end of the decade when American television horror anthologies like “Shock Theater” and Britain’s Hammer Studios brought the creeps of yore back into vogue. Paul Landres’s The Return of Dracula comes close to working as a transitional flick, bridging the paranoia of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Them! with the new crop of old monsters. The film materialized in 1958, the same year Hammer unleashed its newfangled Dracula with its thoroughly modern emphasis on Technicolor blood and undiluted sexuality. Yet Hammer’s Dracula remained planted in Stoker’s late 19th century. The Return of Dracula drags the Count (assuming our vampire is, indeed, Count Dracula) into modern-day California, and it’s vast desert landscape is a jarring antidote to the ruined castles and moonlit forests in which we’re used to seeing vampires frolic.
The vampire arrives on the west coast after fleeing Europe and having supped on a fellow emigrant. He assumes the identity of the poor guy, taking residence in the home of an all-too-typical American family willing to accept the creature as their cousin Bellac (that name ring any bells or Belas?) since they’d never met or seen him before. As David Skal points out in his essential Dracula study, Hollywood Gothic, The Return of Dracula pivots on the same premise as Shadow of a Doubt (1943). In an unmistakable reflection of the relationship between Hitchcock’s Uncle Charlie and niece Young Charlie, Cousin Bellac captures the fascination of teenaged Cousin Rachel Mayberry. He’s an artist, a suave European with manners to beat Rachel’s boorish teenage boyfriend. The sexuality vibrating along Bellac and Rachel’s connection is nearly as palpable as that of Uncle Charlie and Young Charlie, though since Bellac is merely impersonating Rachel’s cousin, the incestuous undercurrents are not nearly as daring as Hitchcock’s.

Not that The Return of Dracula has any qualms about violating taste, as when the vampire snacks on the family cat or sets his sites on a blind girl he intends to transform into his PA. Though shot in black and white, Landres reserves one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment of color when a stake is driven into a vampire and a bright red fountain of blood spews from the wound. It is an unsettling effect, though too quick to pack the same punch as the sudden invasions of color in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Still, it’s an audacious move coming from a filmmaker chiefly associated with vapid T.V. westerns and “Flipper”. In fact, Landres makes clever use of his television background, introducing the Mayberry clan (lower your red flags… “The Andy Griffith Show” wouldn’t debut for another two years) as a typical sitcom family, sans the father figure, living in an artificial sitcom house, whose lives are subverted and nearly ruined by a foreign monster. As Rachel, Norma Eberhardt gives the film’s best performance, crumbling from a perky sitcom stereotype to a frightened, corrupted, and surprising haggard wreck over the course of the film.

Just as Rachel subverts sitcom clich├ęs, Cousin Bellac comes close to doing the same for vampires and xenophobically-conceived invaders. The creature enters the film as a stereotypical foreign menace (and isn’t that what Dracula has always represented?), yet we soon learn he is more victim of communist oppression than “red menace,” explaining that his “life had been confined” and that he came to the U.S. to enjoy its “freedom.” In his letters to America, he “wanted to express (him)self but couldn’t.” This vampire has none of the commanding presence of Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee; he is timid, frail, relying on an old man, a cat, and a bedridden blind girl for sustenance. He later uses that newly vampirized girl as bait for victims he’s apparently too unassuming to possess himself. That being said, he has little trouble casting his spell over healthy young Rachel. Go figure.

While an intriguing alternative to the usual communist infiltrators and imposing vampires (and an interesting forerunner of Klaus Kinski’s similarly simpering count in Herzog’s Nosferatu remake), Lederer’s weakness is a problem in such a stagey and talky picture. Tod Browning’s Dracula had those issues too, but it also had the magnetic performances of Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye. A smattering of interesting though undercooked ideas isn’t enough to command our interest in a monster movie with such a flimsy monster. The Return of Dracula is still worth viewing for Eberhardt’s good performance and its crisp photography. Plus fans of The Shining may get a kick out of the title sequence.
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