I admit it… I agonized over where to put Bela Lugosi on this list. He has to appear somewhere on the list. He set the gold standard as to what a vampire should be like, but Dracula has a lot of problems. It’s stagebound, the hero is repulsive, the ending is utterly flat, and the director was drunk throughout most of the filming.
But one cannot deny that Lugosi is wonderful. He is Dracula from the very moment he appears onscreen, unsettling the luckless Renfield. Unfortunately for Lugosi’s career.
So, why does it say “Armand Tesla” at the top of the page? Well…
Intended as a sequel to Dracula, The Return of the Vampire (1944) is an overlooked, but well-done film that upsets a few tropes along the way. It was made by Columbia, rather than Universal, though, who were not giving up their dearly-paid-for copyrights without ridiculously raising the price. So Columbia gave the story a face-lift, changed the names of the characters, and set it in the present day. Somehow, it avoided Nosferatu‘s copyright hell.
The movie opens in 1921 with Lady Dr. Jane Ainsley and Sir Dr. James Saunders puzzling over the mysterious epidemic in the area. After Saunders’ granddaughter, Nicki, is bitten in her room at night (in a very frightening scene) the pair realize that a vampire is at work. Consulting Dr. Armand Tesla’s book, they track the vampire, and his werewolf servant, Andreas, down and stake the vampire. Lady Jane takes Andreas under her wing, so he can recover his sanity.
Twenty years later (Saunders is now dead) the German bombs unearth and unstake the vampire, who is none other than Tesla, and he resumes his old tricks. Poor Andreas is forced to become a werewolf again, and help the vampire assume the identity of a Holocaust survivor, Dr. Bruckner, who the pair murdered once he was dropped off by the mainland Resistance.
Let me run that by you again. The vampire murders and assumes the identity of a recently rescued Holocaust survivor.
Welcomed into the Ainsley house as Bruckner, he immediately begins to put the bite on her now daughter-in-law, Nicki. His attacks on her are quite disturbing as they imply rather strongly for a Code-era film, that Tesla is after more than blood…. He kidnaps her, and while Lady Jane fruitlessly quarrels with Scotland Yard about how to proceed with the crime, Andreas finally asserts his will and fights back. Ultimately, free of his curse, the werewolf succumbs to his wounds as Tesla is destroyed by sunlight in what may be the first shot of a vampire’s flesh dissolving onscreen.
Yes, Lugosi was (and looks) ill throughout the movie, but he still brings a frightening energy into the utterly evil Tesla. The writers had a good idea by making him a corrupted van Helsing type (they read his book!), and the fact that Tesla was a scientist or doctor in life allows him to fit into the role of Bruckner and even befriend Lady Jane for a while, until she realizes his identity. And Lady Jane is an unusual but believable foil for this magnificent bastard.
Try and dig up this movie somewhere. It’s worth it, and the comedy relief is actually funny.