Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE. Columbia Pictures, 1943. Bela Lugosi, Frieda Inescort, Nina Foch, Miles Mander, Roland Varno, Matt Willis. Director Lew Landers.

   The Return of the Vampire is a 1943 Columbia Pictures horror film directed by Lew Landers (The Raven) and starring Bela Lugosi (Dracula). Viewers with even a cursory knowledge of twentieth-century European history will especially appreciate the significance of the film’s historical context, while Lugosi fans will certainly enjoy the Hungarian-born actor’s portrayal of the vampire Armand Tesla, Count Dracula in all but name.

   The film, which runs just under 70 minutes, benefits from good pacing, well-developed and believable characters, and the theme of free will in the face of cosmic evil. The latter is something that audiences at the time would likely have implicitly associated with the ongoing campaign against Nazism.

   The plot is fairly straightforward, making the film not particularly difficult to follow. We begin in October 1918, a month shy of the end of the Great War. The vampire Tesla and his werewolf assistant, Andreas, inhabit a misty graveyard outside London. Tesla attacks and bites the neck of a young girl named Nikki, who lives in an estate not far from the vampire’s earthly domain.

   Nikki’s grandfather, Professor Walter Saunders (Gilbert Emery), and Lady Jane Ainsley (Frieda Inescort), a scientist, soon realize that Nikki’s wound has a dark, supernatural origin. They’re determined to do something about it. Together, they enter the graveyard, find Tesla’s tomb, and drive a stake through the vampire’s heart. This entire sequence is best be interpreted as an allegory of the conclusion to the violent and culturally disruptive First World War.

   Unfortunately, peace with Tesla, much like Britain’s peace with Germany, was not built to last. The film shifts forward in time to the Second World War. Lady Jane’s son, John, is engaged to Nikki (Nina Foch) and Andreas (Matt Willis), no longer a werewolf, is working in her laboratory.

   But Britain is at war and the Luftwaffe’s bombing raids are taking their toll on London. One such aerial raid directly hits the cemetery and ends up freeing the monstrous Tesla from his coffin. Apparently, the stake through the heart didn’t take.

   Tesla transforms Andreas back into a werewolf. He seeks revenge against Lady Jane and sets out to transform Nikki into a vampire. Lady Jane is once again tasked with the unenviable job of battling Tesla who, for a time, passes himself off as Hugo Bruckner, German scientist eager to defect to the United Kingdom. She has the cooperation, if not the full assistance of Scotland Yard investigator, Sir Frederick Fleet (Miles Mander), who simply doesn’t believe in vampires.

   Although the film is nominally about Tesla, the character of Andreas plays a prominent role as well. One can interpret his story as either an allegory of the perils of addiction or as previously alluded to, of free will in the face of evil.

   The viewer first encounters Andreas as a werewolf, lumbering through a spooky graveyard, completely beholden to his master, Tesla. Andreas’s first on-screen transformation occurs when Professor Saunders drives a stake through Tesla’s heart, freeing him from the vampire’s control and transforming him back into his natural, human form.

   Later, Tesla transforms Andreas back into a werewolf. Finally, at the end of the film, Andreas plays the hero and is transformed back into a man. Each transformation represents a turning point in the film’s narrative structure.

   In conclusion, The Return of the Vampire is as much a horror film as an allegory about Britain’s two conflicts with Germany. Although the film isn’t a classic, the acting is decent and there is a worthwhile message involved. Most importantly, however, is the fact that it’s actually quite fun, the type of movie one can enjoy on the couch, late at night, lights off and popcorn in hand.