Written by: Pat Fielder
Directed by: Paul Landres
Starring: Francis Lederer, Norma Eberhardt, and Ray Stricklyn
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"It is a known fact that there existed in Central Europe a Count Dracula. Though human in appearance and cultured in manner, he was in truth a thing undead, a force of evil, a vampire."
Looking back at The Return of Dracula 55 years after its release makes one thing abundantly clear: the old Count was a perfect foil for 1950s Americana. You know the scene: white picket fences, sleepy neighborhoods, a general tranquility that allowed you to leave your doors unlocked at nightóall that stuff your Baby Boomer parents (or grandparents!) wonít shut up about. If anything, thereís a pretty clear subtext to be found in this late-50s drive-in cheapie, which finds the very notably Eastern European Dracula slipping through the Iron Curtain to prey on the United States during its supposed Golden Age.
Making his way over isnít as easy as it once was: rather than dupe some unsuspecting solicitor into helping him gain passage Westward, Dracula (Francis Lederer) has to be even more duplicitous. Having terrorized the world for several centuries now, his exploits are infamous enough that heís been targeted by a league of vampire hunters who have tracked him down to his crypt: luckily for him, though, he manages to elude them by hopping on a train, where he dispatches a poor artist on his way to America. Upon arriving in a quant California town, he assumes the artistís identity, shacks up with the dead manís distant relatives, and immediately eyes ďcousinĒ Rachel (Norma Eberhardt) to become his next bride.
The time and locations may change, but you know what youíre getting with Dracula, a guy who never gets older and wants his prey to literally stay the same age. Only the particulars have changed hereóotherwise, itís essentially a rather standard Dracula tale, with the Count looking to seduce nearly every nubile girl he encounters. Some of those particulars, however, are worth noting: in this tale, the Lucy character is reconfigured into a blind girl that Rachel cares for at a local ward, so her being cured of her disability is inexplicably part of the Dracula seduction package here. Even weirder is the vaguely pseudo-incestual vibe emitted from the Countís interactions with Rachel. While he obviously knows the truth, she seems rather doe-eyed in what she believes to be her cousinís presence, and thereís definitely a sexual tension between the two. One of the filmís more memorable scenes has Dracula looming over Rachelís bed, an already provocative image made all the more so by their weird relationship.
Of course, it takes on even more resonance if you consider Dracula to be the ultimate Eastern European sleeper agent spreading corruption and evil with every bite. Despite how obvious this angle might have been, the film rarely engages it: once Draculaís activity comes under suspicion of local authorities, an intrepid detective decides to thoroughly question him. During the exchange, the Count notes that heís used to such treatment in his homeland, while the cop proudly notes they donít do things that way in America, an odd boast considering he totally just did things that way and because the country was currently engulfed by a Communist hysteria that notoriously violated civil liberties. Whoops. As such, itís tough to read The Return of Dracula as another 50s Communist allegory, which is a real bummer because itís right there, just below the surface. Instead, the film essentially reconfirms McCarthyism, as the insidious menace is persecuted and snuffed out.
Failing those larger concerns, The Return of Dracula is a perfectly fine B-movie for the era, one thatís helmed with confidence by Paul Landres. Itís quite a slick, sturdily-produced film given its certainly meager budget, with Jack MacKenzieís polished photography serving as a highlight. Despite clocking in at a breezy 75 minutes, it makes quite a visual impression, from a noteworthy burst of crimson during a climactic staking to the aesthetic clash between the fog-drenched gothic horror and the suburban setting. Nowhere is that clash more apparent than it is in Dracula himself: Lederer is an interesting presence who (appropriately enough) never quite takes to his modern digsówith this tussled hair and dapper suit, his Count looks as though he could be hanging with cool Hollywood stars, but his accent and awkward disposition speak to his hidden intentions. Heís both exotic and common all at once.
On the other hand, Eberhardt is completely a girl-next-door type with a hint of final girl pluckiness lurking deep within her (itís a shame that she has to rely on her meathead boyfriend to randomly show up and protect her during the climax). Even though the script doesnít provide her with much depth, she might actually be the rare Dracula target who is more interesting than the bloodsucker himself, as Eberhardtís wide-eyed purity offsets his sinister aims. The tension between the two pays off wonderfully during a Halloween night showdown that finally allows The Return of Dracula to bare some fangsónot incredibly sharp ones considering the era, mind you, but there are enough effects gags to make this resurrection worthwhile. It makes for a fine half to a Midnite Movies double feature alongside Landresís The Vampire, a film that similarly imagines the undead moving in next door. But sure, you could totally still leave your doors unlocked, I guess. Rent it!
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