The Return of the Vampire Blu-ray Review
Written by Robert Gold
Blu-ray released by Scream Factory
Directed by Lew Landers
Written by Griffin Jay
1943, 69 minutes, Not Rated
Released on February 19th, 2019
Bela Lugosi as Armand Tesla/ Dr. Hugo Bruckner
Frieda Inescort as Lady Jane Ainsley
Nina Foch as Nicki Saunders
Roland Varno as John Ainsley
Miles Mander as Sir Frederick Fleet
Matt Willis as Andreas Obry
Gilbert Emery as Dr. Walter Saunders
Two hundred years ago, Armand Tesla wrote the book on vampirism before becoming a vampire himself. In 1918, London is being terrorized by a creature of the night and only a pair of scientists can stop it. Dr. Walter Saunders and Lady Jane Ainsley conclude that their patient’s recent blood loss and subsequent death are the result of a vampire attack. They track the creature to his lair and pound a spike through his heart. Tesla has a werewolf servant named Andreas who, with the death of his master, is returned to normal. Lady Jane insists they take him home and care for him.
Twenty-three years later, Lady Jane has carried on her late partner’s work and continues to employ Andreas as a lab assistant. She is preparing for the wedding of her son to Dr. Saunders’ daughter Nicki. World War II has broken out and London is once again under attack. Nazi planes drop bombs across the city and one strikes a local cemetery. Workers cleaning up the mess discover a corpse with what they believe to be shrapnel sticking out of its chest. They pull the spike free and soon the vampire is restored to walk the earth once again. Tesla is determined to get revenge on those who put a halt to his nocturnal feedings by striking out against their families.
Bela Lugosi stars as the vengeful Armand Tesla and brings a lot of history to the project. Having performed the lead in Dracula on stage and screen, the actor became synonymous with the role. He was frequently seen wearing the cape in public and carried himself with a theatrical presence. The character Dracula was controlled by Universal Pictures and The Return of the Vampire (1943) is a Columbia Pictures presentation, so they could not use the name. Casting Lugosi was a coup for the studio and this feels like a sequel to Tod Browning’s 1931 masterpiece. Lugosi is the main attraction in an otherwise serviceable film. This vampire seems more obsessed with settling scores rather than looking for love.
Director Lew Landers (The Raven) covers a lot of ground in this fast-paced adventure. The timeline in this film is a bit out of the ordinary with a focus on two world wars and the frequent bombing of London as a backdrop. Killing off what appears initially to be the male lead following the prologue is also surprising, as is the idea of making the Van Helsing character a strong female lead. Frieda Inescort (The Alligator People) stars as Lady Jane Ainsley, an intelligent, resourceful woman capable of facing off against a clever vampire. Inescort is really good here and holds her own opposite Lugosi. She is a bit matronly but is no cliché. The most interesting character in the film is Andreas, the werewolf henchman played by Matt Willis (Swamp Water). He is given the most material to work with as a talking lycanthrope with a conscience. He becomes a reluctant hero and plays a crucial role in the finale.
The Return of the Vampire is a fairly routine B-movie that enables Bela Lugosi to don a cape on camera once again. This would prove to be the last time he received top billing in a studio feature before moving on to a series of low-budget cheapies known as Poverty Row films. Lugosi got to play Dracula one final time a few years later in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) and it seemed like he was going to get a second chance at stardom. Sadly, the fame was fleeting and Lugosi never received the career opportunities he deserved. This film allows him to show a bit of range as an actor and he delivers a fine performance filled with menace. The movie makes the jump to Blu-ray and will hopefully reach a new audience of genre fans with a love for vintage horror.
Video and Audio:
Presented in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the picture is in surprisingly great shape. There are a few brief dings in the transfer but nothing too upsetting. The black-and-white image is solid and there is a lot more detail present than in earlier releases.
A DTS-HD MA 1.0 track is also better than expected for a recording that’s seventy-five years old. There’s a lot of music in this film and it is well-balanced with the sound effects and never overwhelming. Dialogue levels are clean and free from distortion.
Optional English subtitles are included for anyone in need.
There are three newly recorded audio commentaries on this disc from an assortment of film historians, each bringing their unique spin to the material. Up first is Troy Howarth, who has a lot to say about the film, but focuses his attention on Lugosi’s career through the 1930s and ‘40s.
Author Gary Rhodes discusses how the project came together and shares several production anecdotes and reflects on the life and work of Lugosi.
Finally, Lee Gambin reads from his extensive and wide-ranging essay focusing on werewolves in film from the 1940s and the 1980s. He has a lot to say on the topic of lycanthropes, but not much about this film specifically.
Before home video became an option, studios would occasionally release edited versions of their movies on 8mm film. One of these titles was The Return of the Vampire. The silent footage contains highlights from the feature complete with subtitles to explain some of the action or dialogue and tells the story in an abbreviated time (8 minutes).
The original theatrical trailer has been included.
A photo gallery plays as a silent slideshow (5 minutes) and contains numerous publicity shots and marketing materials in color and black and white.
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