Friday, June 30, 1972: Return of the Vampire (1943) / The Invisible Killer (1939)

 

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 sanatorium 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: We’ve seen this movie a couple of times before on Horror Incorporated, and I’ve written about my admiration for it — it stands out especially since Columbia wasn’t exactly your go-to studio for horror fare and Lew Landers was anything but a genius auteur. As we’ve seen, the follow up to this picture, Cry of the Werewolf, was eminently forgettable, so we might consider this movie a fluke or a happy accident.  But I wanted to take this opportunity to call attention to Return of the Vampire’s unusual opening.

We start, as you might expect, with Columbia standing on her pedestal, torch aloft, streams of light radiating out and illuminating the words behind her and the clouds above and below. I love Universal and would give anything to travel back to the 1930s and visit the studio during its so-called Golden Age of Horror — but I will admit that Columbia has my favorite major studio logo. It’s beautiful.

From the logo, we get a very quick dissolve to a tight close-up — the face of a terrified woman.

From the moment the dissolve begins the camera is pulling away from her, and it never stops moving for the remainder of the shot. Once the dissolve finishes we get a better look at her. She is tastefully dressed in dark clothing and a hat that appears to place her in the late Victorian era.

We quickly discern that it’s nighttime, and we are outside — a wisp of fog is visible over the woman’s right shoulder. She is wearing a coat; it’s chilly. Even though the camera keeps pulling backward, she backs away, not from us, but from an unseen someone.

As we continue to pull back, it becomes clear that we are in a narrow space, perhaps an alley — the wall behind the woman is made of brick, and there is what appears to be a trash can behind her, in the lower right of the screen ( I am not sure if metal trash cans were a thing in Victorian England, but we’ll go with it).

As the woman steps back, light falls over the right side of her face — from a streetlight? an open doorway? it isn’t clear; but unexpectedly some text fades in, rendered in elegant script.  It starts, oddly enough, with quotation marks (no one in particular is being quoted; we must assume the quotation marks are being used here to denote a certain measure of authority or gravitas), and reads: “The imagination of man at times sires the fantastic and the grotesque. That the imagination of man can soar into the stratosphere of fantasy is attested by —

We continue to pull back as the words brighten, and at the same time we see a man – -whom we will not be surprised to discover is Bela Lugosi in a cape — advance toward her out of the shadows.

The man raises the cape, obscuring the woman’s face as fog swirls around them. As he does so she screams, and we cut to a title card….

…and the words THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE zoom toward us. The credits play over the same title card. which appears to be a still image of gnarled trees in a foggy forest.

Now, there’s nothing unusual about the opening credits playing over a still image; it was commonly done in this era. I could give you a thousand examples but will settle for just one:  The Mummy’s Ghost (1944) ran its opening credits over a static image of a wall covered with ancient Egyptian symbols:

So Return of the Vampire’s  title card looks perfectly normal, except that at the end of the credits we find that what we’re actually seeing is a freeze-frame: we now see a black bird perched in a tree over the priory cemetery.

 

The camera pans left over the cemetery until it finds the werewolf Andreas, who is picking his way through the background, moving toward us.

 

Now we hear narration from Sir Frederick Fleet, played by Miles Mander, who doesn’t even appear in the first part of the movie:

The case of Armand Tesla, vampire….as compiled from the personal notes of Professor Walter Saunders, King’s College, Oxford.

We haven’t met the unfortunate young woman either; but she will have one brief scene as the patient in Lady Ainsley’s sanitarium.  She’s barely ascribed a name (Miss Norcutt) before she dies. She was played, by the way, by an uncredited Jeanne Bates, who had a very long career as a character actor, and who would play Ann Winson the following year in Soul of a Monster.

Andreas keeps moving toward us. So much dry ice is being used that the ground is barely visible, and you can see how carefully Matt Willis is choosing his steps.

The narrations continues: 

The following events took place in the outskirts of London, towards the close of the year 1918.

 

Now Andreas is moving toward the foreground and turns deliberately to his left.  He is definitely going somewhere in particular.  He pauses just outside the crypt.

They began on the night of October the 15th, a particularly gloomy, foggy night that was well-suited for a visit from the supernatural.

Now Andreas enters the crypt and wakes Armand Tesla. These opening moments don’t add all that much from the standpoint of plot. But they are unusual for the time, and the movie has gotten off to a spooky, enigmatic start….well suited, one might say, for a visit from the supernatural.

The Invisible Killer

Synopsis: Fast-talking newspaper reporter Sue Walker (Grace Bradley) always seems to be just one step ahead of her boyfriend, homicide detective Jerry Brown (Roland Drew). Every time he shows up at a crime scene he finds that she’s there ahead of him. This time she beats him to the scene of a gangland killing, an illicit gambling den where a mobbed-up high roller named Jimmy Clark has been murdered, shot while on the telephone. But it is soon revealed that the gunshot wounds didn’t cause his death.

Meanwhile, Sue discovers that Gloria Cunningham, daughter of a prominent anti-gambling crusader, was there at Lefty Ross’ gambling club at the time of Clark’s murder. This is problematic not only because of who she’s related to but who she’s engaged to: no-nonsense D.A. Richard Sutton, who is just embarking on a new effort to crush the underground casino racket in the city. Sutton rounds up the men he knows are operating illicit casinos in the city and instructs them to stop paying protection to the mob and close up shop.

After the conclave Lefty phones Sutton to tell him that he’s ready to spill his guts in exchange for protection. When Sutton replies that he can’t offer immunity from prosecution, Lefty says he’ll take his chances with a jury — what he wants is to live long enough to testify.

Sutton agrees and arranges for Lefty to be brought to his house; Sue bribes the butler into letting her inside. A phone call comes for Lefty.  As soon as Lefty begins talking on the phone he keels over and dies.

Brown disassembles the telephone and discovers that the phone has been tampered with: a capsule of poison gas is hidden in the mouthpiece and can be triggered remotely. But who is the arranging the death of the mobsters?

 

Comments: Fans of the horror genre might find The Invisible Killer’s title a promising one, but if you’re expecting a killer who turns out to be…you know…invisible, forget it. This isn’t that kind of movie.

Some web sites (including IMDB) describe the titular killer as murdering through the use of sound waves, which sounds mildly interesting. But….no.  That is not the killer’s m.o.  In fact, the murderer plants capsules of poison gas in the mouthpieces of telephones, then triggers the gas to be released just as the victim starts chatting away on the old dog and bone.

Between you and me, sound waves would seem a less fool-proof form of execution.

The Invisible Killer’s gimmick notwithstanding (a gimmick that isn’t even established until a good half-hour into the picture), this is a standard-issue crime drama from PRC. Of particular interest is Grace Bradley’s performance as Sue Walker, the brash lady reporter type that turned up in any number of films of this era and was parodied by Jennifer Jason Leigh in the Coen brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy. 

 At the end of the film Sue agrees to marry Jerry and tells her boss she is quitting her job. While it seems rather unlikely today, successful career women ca. 1940 actually were expected to give up their jobs for the (allegedly) more respectable life of cooking, cleaning and general housewifery. Interestingly, that is exactly what happened in Grace Bradley’s case: she cheerfully abandoned a promising movie career in order to be housewife and number-one fan to one William Boyd, a.k.a. Hopalong Cassidy.

Roland Drew’s career was more durable, as he was one of those lucky actors who was able to transition from silent films to sound productions without a hitch. Though he worked steadily through the 1930s this was a rare turn as a leading man. He is best remembered as Prince Barin in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940).

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3 comments

  1. I believe that the cemetery set used in the opening of THE RETU$RN OF THE VAMPIRE is the same one that memorably opens Universal's FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, in which two grave robbers get a surprise under a full moon, only one escaping with his life; one of only three films that allowed Bela Lugosi to play an actual vampire. I haven't seen THE INVISIBLE KILLER, but the method of murder appears to be similar to Boris Karloff's MR. WONG DETECTIVE, later remade as THE CHINESE RING. Roland Drew will be familiar to anyone who's seen Universal's Crime Club series, as he featured in THE LADY IN THE MORGUE, THE LAST WARNING, and MYSTERY OF THE WHITE ROOM.

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