DraculaFest: The Return of Dracula

Horror

Horror

The Return of Dracula (1958) is the sort of movie you don’t really watch or even know about unless, for some bizarre reason, you decide to blog every Dracula movie you can get your hands on. Released by United Artists, it is not a sequel to Universal’s Dracula–or any other Dracula film for that matter. The return in the title seems to simply reference the reappearance of Dracula in America after several centuries of ravaging Europe. This film suffered the grand misfortune of releasing months before Hammer’s Horror of Dracula, which launched Christopher Lee as the definitive Dracula of that era and left this film in the dust.

No one likely wonders why. I find it hard to believe, in a way, that Return and Horror arose at the same time. Filmed in black-and-white with the notable exception of one splash of blood, The Return of Dracula seems downright quaint in comparison to Hammer’s technicolor gore. Set in small-town California and rife with Leave it to Beaver-style family drama, it seems unspeakably polite with its offscreen murders and Halloween socials. (People bob for apples in the background while our heroine struggles against Dracula’s mind control, for gosh sakes!) It’s reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, but somehow less sinister even with a vampire at large.

Aspiring Czech artist Bellac Gordal (Nobert Schiller) boards a train bound for America to seek his fortune while staying with his cousin’s family in California. Unfortunately, he shares a private car with Count Dracula (Francis Lederer), who drains his blood and assumes his identity. It’s unclear whether Dracula wished to go to California or simply took the opportunity when it arose. They also never explain how a train gets from the Balkans to the United States. But arrive it does in the sleepy town of Carleton, where the Mayberry family awaits their estranged relative. (Speaking of Mayberry, Sheriff Andy Taylor would fit right in here, but that show wouldn’t launch for another two years.) Dracula takes up residence in their house, posing as Cousin Bellac (which they continue to call him throughout the film, in case anyone mistakes him for another Bellac, I suppose). Mother Cora (Greta Granstedt) frets over whether the new guest likes melted cheese on his asparagus. Daughter Rachel (Norma Eberhardt) finds herself fascinated by Cousin Bellac’s eccentricities. When family friend Jennie Blake (Virginia Vincent) becomes ill and dies, then vanishes from her casket, suspicions arise. Somehow an immigration agent (!) (Charles Tannen) gets involved as well as the local Sheriff (John McNamara) and a “reverend doctor” (Gage Clarke)–whatever that is. Rachel makes the terrifying discovery that Bellac is a vampire, then more or less ignores that information and hangs out at a Halloween party with her boyfriend, Tim Hansen (Ray Stricklyn). Eventually Dracula calls Rachel to the cave where he’s keeping his coffin, and Tim follows her. They ward off Dracula using the huge, dime-store cross Rachel is wearing around her neck. (She went to the costume party dressed as a Grecian goddess, but with a huge cross around her neck. Yeah.) Suddenly we hear a scream off camera and discover that Dracula has fallen through the flooring into an old mine or something and somehow got staked through the heart on the way down. THE END. Seriously, that’s the end: Dracula tripping and laying at the bottom of a pit with a stray piece of wood through his chest. It’s like the writer got bored about four pages from the ending and just cut it off, no muss no fuss.

Scariest moment ends with the opening credits.

Scariest moment ends with the opening credits.

Francis Lederer doesn’t do much with the role of Dracula/Cousin Bellac. I blame the meager role rather than the actor, for Lederer held a major role in the kick-ass German Expressionist silent film Pandora’s Box with Louise Brooks. Don’t bother with this flick, go and find Pandora’s Box instead. This isn’t a terrible film, but it’s clear why Horror of Dracula won this shootout. Return‘s single splash of red blood in an otherwise monochrome movie seems silly at a time when Christopher Lee painted the screen red with every vivid victim. This film seems like it wants to scare, but just doesn’t commit. The title card featuring a shadowy figure with disembodied eyes is genuinely unsettling, but it promises scares that never materialize.

Gee Wilikers! The Return of Dracula earns .25 out of 2 fangs out. Only for the completist or the very bored.

Up next: The Count invades the boob tube!