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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

THE RETURN OF DRACULA -- movie review by porfle

Watching THE RETURN OF DRACULA (1958) for the first time since my initial afternoon-TV viewing as a kid, I was bowled over by what a finely-wrought and effective low-budget vampire thriller it is. The stage is set by its spooky opening titles (Dracula's eyes stare out at us during the familiar strains of "Dies Irae") and it only gets better.

In the midst of all the the giant radioactive creatures, alien invaders, and revisionist updates of old classic horror themes which dominated 50s genre films, this atmospheric black-and-white chiller seems like a holdover from the fabulous 40s and lacks only the production gloss of the Universals (although it still beats the likes of SHE-WOLF OF LONDON by a country mile). 

Directed by Paul Landres and written by Pat Fielder (THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD), both of whom also gave us the creepy John Beal shocker THE VAMPIRE, the story begins with an enigmatic Count Dracula (Francis Lederer) escaping pursuit in Europe by assuming the identity of an artist named Bellac Gordal who is traveling to the United States to live with American relatives.  (Norbert Schiller, who played "Shuter" in FRANKENSTEIN 1970 and also appeared in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, is seen briefly as the real Bellac.)

Once there, the sinister impostor's curdled charm will entrance the kindly and vivacious young Rachel Mayberry (Norma Eberhardt, surprisingly effective in the role) who finds him dashing and worldly despite his odd behavior (he disappears during daylight hours and refuses to participate in any social activites). 

This elicits jealousy and suspicion from Rachel's hot-rodder boyfriend Tim (Ray Stricklyn) although her naive, trusting mother Cora (Greta Granstedt) and kid brother Mickey (Jimmy Baird) are much slower on the uptake.

Never having seen Hitchcock's SHADOW OF A DOUBT, to which this is often compared, I see THE RETURN OF DRACULA as sort of a companion piece to Universal's 1943 Lon Chaney, Jr. classic, SON OF DRACULA.  In both films, the Count takes up residence in smalltown America (in SON, it's the bayou country of Louisiana) and wreaks havoc with the locals while a vampire expert joins forces with a resident authority figure (in this case a priest) to combat the encroaching evil.

Francis Lederer makes a very imposing Dracula with his commanding yet subtle presence and his air of dark continental decadence, clearly taking a perverse relish in the act of corrupting the innocent.  In fact, as soon as Rachel tells him about Jennie (THE HILLS HAVE EYES' Virginia Vincent), the poor, bed-ridden blind girl she's been taking care of at the parish house run by Reverend Whitfield (Gage Clarke), this vile creature of darkness wastes no time making her his first victim. 

The hapless Jennie's violation as Dracula enters her bedroom shrouded in mist is nightmarish--Dracula bestows on her the ability to "see" him advancing toward her as she lies helpless--but nothing compared to Jennie's fate when, after transforming into the living dead herself, she's followed by relentless vampire hunter John Merriman (John Wengraf) back to her crypt to be staked in a shocking color insert.

Along with some good jump scares, several scenes are memorably eerie and disturbing.  The opening scenes with Merriman and company closing in on Dracula in a shadowy European cemetery at dawn are so tense and well-staged it's almost as though Quentin Tarantino were guest director. 

Later, Rachel's ongoing seduction by "Cousin Bellac" results in several chilling scenes and close calls--in one, the blare of Tim's car horn snaps her out of a hypnotic reverie and prevents her from joining Dracula in the nearby cave where his coffin resides.  It's here that the teen lovers will fight a losing battle against the Lord of the Undead in a suspenseful climax.

THE RETURN OF DRACULA is highly recommended for anyone who appreciates classic horror.  In my opinion, this superior 50s effort--be it ever so humble--is one of the finest Dracula/vampire movies ever made.

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