You’re a very brilliant woman, but a foolish one to pit your strength against mine.– Armand Tesla
So, today’s film was supposed to be John Gulager’s 2005 horror-comedy, Feast, but…well. I watched it, didn’t enjoy it, and didn’t feel like writing about it. So instead, inspired by pal David Annandale, I watched the 1943 Columbia Pictures vampire film, The Return of the Vampire, which I did enjoy, and do want to write something about. Lucky you!
Anyway, the main draw here is obviously Lugosi as a vampire who is definitely *not* Dracula, but might as well be. If Armand Tesla isn’t as intense as Dracula was in his 1931 appearance, he is just as spiteful and monstrous. The character occupies a middle-ground between the silken menace of Dracula and the monstrous schemer of Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), but like both is burdened with an infernal hubris that ultimately proves his undoing (interestingly, in both this film and in Abbot and Costello… that undoing comes in the form of a werewolf; here its Tesla’s lycanthropic servant, Andréas, and in Abbot and Costello… it’s poor old Larry Talbot. Between these and his role as the unfortunate Bela in The Wolf Man (1941), Lugosi doesn’t have much luck when it comes to lycanthropy…)
It’s that Satanic pride that differentiates Lugosi’s vampire from those of, say, Christopher Lee. Lee’s Dracula has the arrogance of a tiger, but it’s not the same. He doesn’t possess the same smug sense of superiority that Lugosi’s undead drip with. Tesla or Dracula, it doesn’t matter; they all radiate the same haughtiness – an old world pomposity that no English aristocrat can quite replicate.
But the film doesn’t belong to Lugosi alone. Frieda Inescort, as Lady Jane Ainsley, is the requisite Van Helsing stand-in, and she holds her own against Lugosi at least as well as Edward Van Sloan did twelve years earlier. Watching Inescort wrangle with the sceptical Sir Frederick over the existence of vampires, and match wits with the rapacious Tesla not once but twice, is a thing of beauty. I’ve included one of the best scenes between Inescort and Lugosi below – in point of fact, it’s this scene that made me wish that Lady Jane had gotten her own three picture spinoff.
All told, The Return of the Vampire is a slick pastiche of Universal’s better-known formula. It moves at a fair clip, with only a few digressions into slapstick (“Blimey, ‘e’s ‘opped! Lord Love-a-Duck!”) to lighten the tone. Though in his sixties, Lugosi is still swinging for the fences, and his Armand Tesla is, if not as memorable as Dracula, a worthy addition to the pantheon of cinematic counts. But don’t take my word for it – give it a watch for yourself.