Old World evil infects a New World small town, in this widescreen black and white gem. Olive Films has released on Blu-ray THE RETURN OF DRACULA (a.k.a. THE CURSE OF DRACULA), the 1958 horror outing from Gramercy Pictures (released by United Artists), directed by Paul Landres, written by Pat Fielder, and starring Francis Lederer, Norma Eberhardt, John Wengraf, Ray Stricklyn, Virginia Vincent, Gage Clark, Jimmie Baird, and Greta Granstedt. Released here in April, 1958, THE RETURN OF DRACULA’s modern era, U.S.-based vampire tale was quickly forgotten—if indeed it was first ever “known”—just a month later, when U.K.’s Hammer studio unleashed their iconic, international smash hit, DRACULA (aka HORROR OF DRACULA), starring Christopher Lee. That’s too bad, because Landres’ good-looking low-budget creeper has some interesting subtexts within its curiously combined TV family drama/film noir milieu. Olive’s almost bare-bones release (there’s an original trailer) of THE RETURN OF DRACULA sports a very nice 1080p HD black and white 1.85:1 widescreen transfer.
1958, behind the Iron Curtain. In a remote Balkan mausoleum, vampire hunter Meierman (John Wengraf, THE DISEMBODIED, HITLER) and a group of men await the first rays of the sun, in order to impale Count Dracula (Francis Lederer, I MARRIED A NAZI, TERROR IS A MAN) in his coffin. Unfortunately, the vampire has given Meierman the slip, and has boarded a train. There, Dracula kills Bella Gordal (Norbert Schiller, FRANKENSTEIN 1970), an artist escaping the oppressive Old World for the freedoms of the New: America. Assuming his identity, Dracula eventually arrives in the peaceful small town of Carleton, California, where his extended family awaits (little does he know that Meierman is hot on his trail). Lucky for Dracula, Bellac’s cousin, Cora Mayberry (Greta Granstedt, (HITLER: BEAST OF BERLIN, THE ATOMIC CITY), hasn’t seen the artist since he was a child. Particularly anxious to meet “Uncle Bellac” is Cora’s daughter, Rachel (Norma Eberhardt, PROBLEM GIRLS, LIVE FAST, DIE YOUNG), a soon-to-be nurse/frustrated artist who has corresponded with the romantic-seeming Bellac for years (what: no photos?). Rachel’s boy-next-door boyfriend, Tim Hansen (Ray Stricklyn, THE LOST WORLD, ARIZONA RAIDERS) takes one look at the suave, courtly Bellac, and instantly knows deep in his red-blooded American bones that at the very least, Bellac is running some kind of snow job on his newly adopted Yankee family. When Bellac proves to be an unusual houseguest—he doesn’t come out during the day; he smashes the mirrors in his room—the Mayberrys chalk it up to the understandable eccentricities of a European artist accustomed to living under the iron fist of Communist oppression. However, when bad things start to happen in Carleton—Rachel’s little brother Mickey (Jimmy Baird, OPERATION EICHMANN, KING OF THE ROARING 20’S: THE STORY OF ARNOLD ROTHSTEIN) has his kitten torn apart; parish house blind girl Jennie Blake freaks out and drops dead—Rachel gets the feeling that maybe all isn’t right with “Uncle Bellac”...or maybe...everything is all right with handsome, sexy “Uncle Bellac.”
In an interview, scripter Pat Fielder (THE VAMPIRE, TV’s THE RIFLEMAN) acknowledged Hitchcock’s SHADOW OF A DOUBT as a background influence on THE RETURN OF DRACULA’s “strange relative idolized by young relative brings death to a small town” plotline. However, I’m surprised nobody else has mentioned Orson Welles’ post-war Nazi thriller, THE STRANGER, where an Old World evil is pursued to pristine, bucolic America by a determined investigator/hunter—an evil given shelter, incidentally, by a naive-but-sexually satisfied relative (in that story, Welles’ wife). While THE RETURN OF DRACULA’s Cold War/American suburb subtext is frequently referenced (and overstated) in reviews, critics seem to overlook the movie’s heavy sexual context: nice, church-going teen Rachel gets the heebie-jeebies in her bathing suit area every time handsome, continental artist “Uncle Bellac” lays that Euro-trash accent on her.
There’s a lot of personal projection and big critical leaps in those reviews that discuss THE RETURN OF DRACULA’s political undertones (this one had me on the floor: “Residents of lily-white Norman Rockwell utopias try to work their tidy Christian ethics on dicey people and situations far beyond their ken.” Gee, there sure are a lot of white “film critics” out there who hate white people...). It’s a fun parlor game based on a clichéd view of so-called repressive 1950s America, made easier by Fielder and Landres setting up some vaguely connective elements that could yield such a reading: the loner “Other” moving from a Communist regime to small town America, where he perverts the social niceties set in place to welcome him (rather than the guest feasting with his hosts on their food and inclusive social activities, the guest literally feasts on his hosts). However, most reviewers are stretching their cases, particularly since THE RETURN OF DRACULA’s actual plot doesn’t conform to their theories: the Mayberrys don’t try and force their foreign relative to do anything, let alone force him to conform to small town American ways. Nobody is trying to convert this nonconformist, possibly Commie artist, into Ozzie Nelson. Drac’s rude behavior is benevolently, and rather unbelievably, tolerated by all (despite the believed bromides, we’re pretty accepting in the Middle West...but you don’t snub the Reverend and mom’s best blueberry pie). When Drac starts telling Rachel he won’t conform to this “dull and useless life,” he isn’t speaking about the Rotary—he’s speaking about life itself. He’s rejecting the life force, not Mickey Mantle, hot dogs, and Mom’s apple pie. He loves death (You could easily make the case that this weary vampire is leaving the tired, bloodless Old World for the free, youthful, red-blooded New World—after all, that’s what the real Bellac was doing. That’s hardly an indictment against small town America).
And he wants to bring hot teen Rachel along for the ride. You can guess all you want about THE RETURN OF DRACULA’s interesting but frankly fuzzy political undercurrents—there’s no guessing, though, when it comes to the sex. Unlike so many teen portrayals in 1950s movies, director Paul Landres (THE VAMPIRE, JOHNNY ROCCO) and scripter Fielder present us with two pretty normal-seeming kids. Not exaggerated, stereotypical punks, nor sappy, goody two-shoes dopes, Rachel and Tim argue, and laugh at each other, and apologize when they’re wrong...and they clearly have some level of a sex life. Rachel may spend a lot of time helping people at the parish house (why do so many critics think that’s weird?), but she doesn’t mind when Tim rolls over on top of her to make out with her in her own living room (a pretty potent image for a 1958 flick). However, once she gets a gander at her “Uncle,” Timmy is so much stale lunch. Lederer, debonair and handsomely dissipated, looks Eberhardt up and down like wolf eyeing a pork chop, and before he can say, “I understand you’re a frustrated artist,” she’s putty in his hands. Landres doesn’t pull any punches when he stages her (almost) submissions to her uncle. Laying on her bed, her eyes smoldering, she violently tears off her crucifix when ordered to do so by Drac. He’s visibly pleased with her eager compliance, and asks if she’s scared; her response is an unequivocal, “No,” (at least blind girl Jennie had the decency to be terrified at the thought of being ravished by Drac). Rachel wants it from her distant relative; if anything is subversive about THE RETURN OF DRACULA, it’s that incestuous angle, not its politics (Landres isn’t kidding around; later on in the mine shaft, he has Eberhardt slowly kneel down in front of Lederer when ordered again to take off her cross...).
Visually, THE RETURN OF DRACULA is equally interesting. Adopting a dark, gray, noirish pall for almost all of the exterior scenes (California looks kinda spooky here), and alternately blown out/ high key, shadowy lighting for the interiors, director Landres and cinematographer Jack McKenzie (ISLE OF THE DEAD, hundreds of episodic TV shows), achieve a weird combo of LEAVE IT TO BEAVER MEETS OUT OF THE PAST that fits perfectly into this dreamy nightmare (the whole thing is downbeat, perverse, and noir, what with a kitten torn apart, a blind girl having premonitions of her own death, and a nice church girl subconsciously lusting after her uncle. Just throw in Robert Mitchum and ditch the Drac, and you’ve got a great noir). Landres opens the credits with a scary shot of Lederer in silhouetted blackness, staring directly at us, with only his crazed eyes unmasked (a nice metaphor for Drac’s psychic omniscience) as Berlioz’ Dies Irae booms. It’s low-key weird for what you think is going to be a cheap drive-in vampire flick, and Landres maintains that laid-back nightmare tone throughout (we don’t even see Drac actually bite anyone, nor does he leave any marks). Dread and suspense supplant horror for most of the runtime, until Landres comes up with a truly Hammer-esque finale, including a flat-out remarkable 1970s giallo-worthy gore shot of vampire Jennie getting staked (in brilliant, self-reflexive color—if this had been included in the TV prints during the 1960s and 1970s, or even the Ken Films Super 8 home digest version, the movie’s rep would have been much higher), as well as an equally modern-looking shot of Drac writhing on a metal stake. Largely forgotten now (and none too celebrated when it first came out), THE RETURN OF DRACULA punches way above its weight. And scores.
The 1080p HD 1.85:1 widescreen black and white transfer for THE RETURN OF DRACULA looks quite good. Grain is a bit noisy in a few scenes (outdoors), and crystal clear smooth and tight in most others—no doubt due to the limitations of the original cinematography. Blacks are deep and true, mostly, while the gray scale is creamy and contrast measured. Depth isn’t the greatest, but fine image detail is fairly nice. The DTS-HD Master audio English 2.0 split mono is re-recorded at a hefty level. Hiss is minor, dialogue crisp (some of the looping sounds too crisp now, no doubt due to the remastering). English subtitles are available. An original theatrical trailer is included. (Paul Mavis)
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