Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Return of Dracula

Paul Landres' overlooked 50s horror great The Return of Dracula could be subtitled, with some justification, "Dracula Goes to the Suburbs." And yet the film does not, as that premise might suggest, play up the campy silliness or incongruity of the blood-sucking count setting up operations in a sunny California town. Rather, the film is dark and grainy and straightforwardly terrifying, its horror arising from the way the undead's nighttime evil seems to silently infiltrate this ordinary American suburb, an Old World nightmare seeping into New World homes, creeping among the picket fences and shiny chrome-laden 50s cars. Dracula (Francis Lederer) arrives in the guise of a suave European visitor, posing as the émigré Balkan cousin of suburban widow Cora Mayberry (Greta Granstedt). Cora and her family — perky, sweet-natured daughter Rachel (Norma Eberhardt) and tousled-haired little son Mickey (Jimmy Baird) — are as all-American as possible, making the arrival of "cousin Bellac" an exciting event for them, a chance to experience something foreign, something far outside of the norm of their cozy, isolated little community. What they get is far more than they expected.

In this sense, the horror of The Return of Dracula emerges from the fear of difference, the fear of immigrants and their ethnic distinctions, their varying customs and eccentric behavior, so unlike the fair-haired, fresh-faced American kids of this small town. This is a Dracula who scorns American suburban conformity, who represents the ultimate outsider, refusing to assimilate and adapt himself to the way of life of those around him — who refuses, in fact, to adapt to life itself, preferring to tempt those he encounters into death instead. Lederer is an incredibly creepy vampire, but also a decidedly non-traditional one. Landres' take on this tale incorporates some aspects of vampire lore (the fear of crosses, the aversion to sunlight, the stake through the heart, the lack of reflection) but sheds others. This version of Dracula leaves no teeth marks on his victims, but it's not clear what exactly he does to them: he visits them in the night, appearing from a cloud of smoke, whispering seductively to hypnotize them, sneakily insinuating into them the desire to embrace death, to reject life. He is not so much a vampire as a lothario who creeps in the night, luring innocents to their doom. He looks the part, too: this Dracula dresses like a gangster in a nappy suit and fedora, and with his craggy face and hawk-like nose, Lederer looks as much like an intimidating hitman as an undead count. But his beady eyes, ringed with black, and his sinister, leering smile confirm his supernatural pedigree.

The creeping malice of Lederer's Dracula is only enhanced by his surroundings, by the quiet and tranquility of the neighborhood through which he stalks. Rachel is, of course, the focus of the vampire's fascination, and she's a pure, good-hearted girl who dedicates a great deal of time at the local church, where she cares for the ill and reads to the blind. She has dual ambitions to be a nurse or a dress designer, and when she's not at school or doing charity work, she's making out with and playfully teasing the earnest boy next door, her boyfriend Tim (Ray Stricklyn). The two are typical 50s teenagers, happy and carefree and good-humored; one expects them to say things like "golly" and "aw shucks" without any trace of irony. Their sexuality is disarmingly open and yet somehow chaste, peaking at heavy kissing, and Dracula's seduction into death represents a darker, stranger sexuality as yet unexplored. There is almost always a sexual component to vampire stories, and this mostly bloodless vampire is even more explicitly than usual a seducer, leaving his mark in his victims' minds rather than on their necks. In this way, the film might be a prototype for David Lynch's Blue Velvet, a dark fantasy of unspeakable evil coexisting with equally unnatural goodness, of dark sexuality tempting small town teens towards violent oblivion.

The film is dark aesthetically as well as thematically. Even in the daytime, this town is gray and overcast, as though perpetually clouded, and at night the shadows threaten to swallow up everything. Dracula melts out of the darkness, haunting the night, appearing and disappearing as though he could be any place he wanted at any time. His voice floats everywhere through the town, his insistent whispered entreaties calling his victims to him. In one of the film's eeriest sequences, he creeps into the room of the blind young woman Jennie (Virginia Vincent), who opens her unseeing eyes as Dracula tells her to see him in her mind. The girl is stiff and transfixed, her eyes watery and wide, as the vampire approaches her bed, bending down towards her neck and blotting out the camera's view as he does. With misdirection like this, Landres suggests horror rather than showing it directly. In one early scene, Mickey returns from exploring the nearby caves distraught and weeping uncontrollably, having just found his kitten ripped apart and killed; his reaction to this unseen horror is more harrowing than modern horror films where the gore is piled on thick but the emotional reactions are sparse. Landres doesn't care as much about the blood and violence as about the effect of it all on his characters, the slowly increasing mood of dread as Rachel's opinion of her stylish "cousin" shifts from admiration to suspicion to wide-eyed terror.

The overall restraint of the film, its deliberate pacing, also enhances the shock of the swift brutal violence when it finally does come, like the scene where a vampire hunter, closing in on Dracula's trail, is assaulted and torn to shreds by a ferocious white dog, one of the vampire's many incarnations. Even more startling is the way that Landres, at a key point, inserts a sudden few seconds of color footage, with blood red oozing up out of a wound — an effectively sensational way of representing the shock of violence in this monochrome world.

Landres also has an intuitive eye for striking compositions, like the way he shoots the purposeful gathering of a group of vampire hunters led by police inspector Meiermann (John Wengraf), converging in a triangle as they walk towards the camera carrying stakes and crosses. Later, when Rachel finally discovers the truth about her "cousin," Landres playfully places a mirror in the extreme righthand corner of the frame throughout the scene leading up to this moment. The director is banking on his audience's knowledge of vampire lore, and he knows that by subtly pointing to the mirror's prominence in the scene, he's ratcheting up the tension, suggesting the inevitable moment when the vampire will appear, invisible in this mirror but no less real. Moments like this suggest the style and flair that Landres brings to this unpretentious B movie, elevating it into a minor classic of its genre. The Return of Dracula is a surprisingly potent, original take on the Dracula legend, revitalizing the old vampire tale with its blunt low-budget aesthetics and small town setting.


Richard Bellamy said...

I have never seen this one - but it sounds great. I am especially interested in 1950s films - Westerns and science-fiction especially. There's a great book about 50s films - Seeing is Believing: How Hollywood Taught us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties, by Peter Biskind. It seems like The Return of Dracula would apply to the book's analysis of the Fear of the Other as a pervading theme in 50s films.

Joshua said...

I haven't seen this one, but you've piqued my interest. Although the way you describe it at times sort of reminds me of Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt. Valid comparison?

Ed Howard said...

Good call Joshua: I hadn't thought of that but there are definitely shades of Uncle Charlie in the relationship between "Cousin Bellac" and Rachel. The details of their relationship are not quite similar enough to be intentional, I don't think, but it's definitely an interesting comparison -- I like the idea of Hitch's movie with a vampire subbed in.

Hokahey, the Biskind book sounds very much worth checking out. And I'd certainly recommend this film to anyone interested in 50s horror and sci-fi.

Uncle Gustav said...

The two are typical 50s teenagers, happy and carefree and good-humored; one expects them to say things like "golly" and "aw shucks" without any trace of irony.

The American cinema seemed so much purer without the contemporary cliche of excess irony.

Thank you for recognizing this film, Ed. It used to play on TV in the 1960s all the time. By the time I was ten, I probably knew all its dialog by heart. It's an outstanding Dracula picture, sadly dwarfed in the minds of many by the Technicolor Hammer Films series with Christopher Lee.

There are similarities between it and Shadow of a Doubt as well as Siodmak's Son of Dracula. I wrote about it in brief on my blog -- short enough to include here:

"Two vampire pictures from the ‘50s that still hold up rather well have come out together on a double feature DVD: The Vampire (1957) and Return of Dracula (1958). Both have musical scores by Gerald Fried, both were written by Pat Fielder, directed by Paul Landres, and produced by Arthur Gardner and Jules Levy. Modestly budgeted and competently made, they’re small gems with intelligent scripts that quietly address post-World War II concerns.

"They’re both set in rural American towns whose deeply rooted traditions are challenged by unwanted change and parasitic threats. In The Vampire, it’s the onset of drugs, anti-social behavior and the breakdown of the family unit; in Return of Dracula, xenophobia, communist infiltration and nonconformist aliens. Residents of lily-white Norman Rockwell utopias try to work their tidy Christian ethics on dicey people and situations far beyond their ken. Both films end similarly: lives and dreams are shattered, characters are stunned into submission by opposing values, all pointing toward the cultural upheaval to come throughout the next decade."

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the great comment, Ray, you very succinctly sum up what's so interesting about this film. Now I'm excited to check out Landres' The Vampire soon, too.

Anonymous said...

A truly definitive review of an admittedly off-the-radar film that excited me to no end several years back in the laserdisc days when it appeared on a set with I BURY THE LIVING and THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE, two films like this that are a blast. The terrific comments above further testify to this review's popularity. I do remember this film as a child on television re-runs on Chiller theatre (I am 53 now)

Ed, are you aware that Rod Serling wrote a very effective send-up of Francis Lederer's performance here in a Second season episode of NIGHT GALLERY entitled "The Devil is Not Mocked" where Lederer again plays a vampire, who this time defeats an entire brigade of Nazis, biting the neck of their commander. I watched it with my kids a few weeks ago, and I though of Lederer in his earlier role.

Ed Howard said...

Haven't heard of that, Sam, but it sounds great -- Lederer does some quality work here, there's a real quiet menace about his vampire but also a sense of something deeper, the impression that he really believes what he's selling in his ruminations on life and death.

Mark said...

To comment upon the original Dracula - the movies (none of the versions) were ever as good as the original novel. The 1931 movie version of the original novel Dracula still remains the best one, to me.

Reference of movie: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0021814/

Reference of online Dracula text:
Bram Stoker: http://www.webliterature.net/literature/Stoker/

Doug Bonner said...

THE RETURN OF DRACULA was the first film I ever saw, as a pre-schooler. You totally nailed the descriptions and subtexts: as a toddler, I felt myself being jerked back and forth between the familiar images of 1950s suburbs and gothic vampire imagery. And when the one color shot of the stake going into Jenny flashed on the screen, the theatre filled with screams of horror and disgust.

Ed Howard said...

That's an awesome story, Doug. This film is just so packed with psychological subtexts about 50s Americana. I can't imagine what it must have been like to see it in those circumstances; what a great first movie.