Synopsis: October 1918 — a werewolf named Andreas skulks through a British cemetery at dusk. He enters a crypt, where he awakens vampire Armand Tesla. Andreas tells Tesla that his latest victim is “still alive”, and that despite the attentions of Dr. Jane Ainsley and an Oxford professor named Saunders, no progress is being made toward curing her. Andreas laughs at the notion that the scientists will find anything wrong with the girl that can be explained by science.
Meanwhile, Lady Jane Ainsley is working in the private sanitorium that adjoins her family estate. She has been examining a blood sample from the very same woman Andreas spoke of, a woman who was brought in suffering from shock. Ainsley notes that the woman’s blood isn’t anemic, as she had expected; it is in fact quite normal. Rather, it appears that the woman’s blood had been drained from her body, which seems impossible. Aside from two tiny pinpricks on her throat, she has no wounds of any kind. Both she and Professor Saunders are baffled.
The patient becomes agitated, shouting fearfully to an unseen person in the room that she is loyal and hasn’t told anyone about what happened. Moments later, she dies.
That night, Professor Saunders begins reading a strange treatise on vampirism, written a century ago by Dr. Armand Tesla. By morning, Saunders is convinced that their unfortunate patient’s blood had been drained by a vampire. Dr. Ainsley is reluctant to believe such a wild theory, but when Saunders’ granddaughter Nicki is revealed to have been bitten as well, Ainsley is convinced.
Ainsley and Saunders deduce that a vampire operating in the vicinity must have its coffin nearby, somewhere where it can be easily concealed. Searching the crypt at a nearby cemetery, they discover the vampire sleeping. They drive a railroad spike through its heart, killing it. At that moment, Andreas enters the crypt, and he falls to the ground, transforming from a werewolf to a man — Tesla’s power over him has been broken. They bury Tesla’s body in an unmarked grave.
Twenty-three years later, we find Andreas working as a trusted assistant to Dr. Ainsley, and Nicki has grown up to become a beautiful young woman, engaged to Dr. Ainsley’s son John. But Britain is again at war, and one night a stray German bomb falls inside the cemetery. Surveying the damage, a pair of workers find a man’s body with a railroad spike driven through it. They remove the spike and re-inter the body.
Later, Dr. Ainsley sends Andreas on an important errand: a scientist named Dr. Hugo Bruckner has been spirited out of Nazi Germany and is arriving at the British coast. Andreas is to meet him and escort him to a temporary residence. But on the way, Andreas meets Armand Tesla. Tesla once again gains control of Andreas, and forces him to kill Bruckner. Taking the place of Dr. Bruckner, Tesla begins to plan his revenge on Dr. Ainsley and her family…..
Comments: Back in the 1930s, studios didn’t grind out sequels at the rate they do today. It took four years for Universal to put together a sequel to Frankenstein. For The Invisible Man the gap was seven years and for The Mummy it was eight.
And while Dracula’s Daughter (1936) is technically a sequel, the character of Count Dracula himself didn’t return to cinemas until 1943’s Son of Dracula. Eleven months after that, the count turned up again, this time as something of a bit player in House of Frankenstein. But as much as Lugosi yearned to reprise the role that made him famous, the part was handed off to other actors – first Lon Cheney, Jr. and then John Carradine.
Universal had always been strangely ambivalent about Bela Lugosi, often trading on his name even while relegating him to smaller and smaller roles. In the end he was forced to lobby for whatever parts he could convince screenwriters and producers to throw his way. His stint at Monogram couldn’t have done much to boost his confidence, so it must have been wonderful for him to essentially play the count again in Lew Landers’ Return of the Vampire at Columbia.
At this point Universal had pretty much cornered the market on horror films, and Columbia had never tried very hard to compete. But Return of the Vampire is a strikingly atypical example of Columbia’s output, essentially an homage to the entire Universal horror canon. Not only do we have the caped vampire stalking beautiful young women in streets of London, but a werewolf whose makeup is strikingly similar to Jack Pierce’s design for The Wolf Man (though Matt Willis looks a bit more like a terrier than a wolf). Enough dry ice is used to fog up the graveyards of a dozen Universal pictures; we even have fog indoors in a couple of scenes.
And unlike Columbia’s typical approach to horror, Return of the Vampire is quite unflinching in its depiction of the supernatural. There is no attempt to dress it up in scientific patter or resort to an explained-away ending. Instead, we have the character of Armand Tesla, a Romanian scientist who once sought to study and quantify the phenomenon of vampirism, only to become seduced by its unearthly power himself. Thus, when posing as Dr. Bruckner, he is able to mouth the comforting platitudes of science, but this is just cover — it’s clear that he no longer believes it.
Lugosi is in fine form here, and he’s aided by a very solid cast. Freida Inescort is marvelous as Lady Jane Ainsley, an initially skeptical scientist who must mortgage her sterling reputation in order to convince her colleagues that the vampire she’s talking about is real. She is ultimately the Van Helsing character: her greatest obstacle is not the vampire himself, but the skepticism of those around her. The luckless Andreas is Tesla’s Renfield, though luckily he gets to do more here than eat flies and bulge his eyes out. He also gets a nobler death scene than Dwight Frye ever did.
This is one of the better-paced horror films of its era, and despite some glaring plot contrivances (I can accept one plot point caused by a stray German bomb, or even two, but three is pushing it) it’s one of Lugosi’s best films. It’s too bad Universal didn’t give Lugosi permanant ownership of the Dracula mantle and let him play the role to his heart’s content. It would have been their best route, economically as well as artistically speaking; Return of the Vampire was a big moneymaker for Columbia.
Interestingly, the second half of Return of the Vampire introduces a Dracula-seeking-revenge subplot that anticipates the Hammer Dracula films of the 1950s and 60s. Like those later films, the vampire here doesn’t get an enormous amount of screentime (we don’t even see his face until 23 minutes in), but Lugosi makes the best of all his scenes; the confrontation between Tesla and Ainsley in the music room is thrillingly staged.
The Man Who Lived Twice
Rawley follows Schuyler home and offers himself as a test subject. He convinces Schuyler that this might be his only chance to verify his theory, and he asks for only one thing in return: plastic surgery so that he can forever evade detection.
But when Peggy happens to meet Dr. Blake, she begins to suspect that he is her former boyfriend. A dogged police detective begins to think so too. But is Slick Rawley really dead? And if he is, how can Dr. Blake be held responsible for his crimes?
Dr. Schuyler’s theory on criminal behavior — that it’s caused by a physical defect and can be easily treated — has more far-reaching implications than the screenplay itself suggests. Such a scientific theory, if proven to be true, would turn the whole world upside down, because most of our religious and societal institutions are built upon the premise that people are capable of free will. Schuyler’s theory calls into question how many of our choices are dictated by the minor tumors he has identified. What happens if criminality isn’t the tumors’ only effect?
Suppose the tumors cause other traits or impulses to appear in patients? What if the tumors determine whether or not a person is pleasant or rude, liberal or conservative, straight or gay, religious or non-religious? And if the tumor link extends to these other preferences or behaviors, could anyone truly said to be free to choose any path in their lives? What would stop society from “fixing” those “defective” traits by the same basis that they “fixed” Slick Rawley’s?
If the movie were made today, perhaps it would attempt to tackle all these questions. That would undoubtedly ruin it. Part of the pleasure of watching The Man Who Lived Twice is seeing a petty criminal become not just a good man, but a great one. That’s not easy to pull off in any movie, but it works well enough here. While it’s not quite a horror film it carries enough elements of the fantastic — and asks enough questions — to keep us interested.