It was produced by Columbia Pictures and features Bela Lugosi as 'I Can't Believe It's Not Dracula' - strictly speaking, a Romanian scientist named Armand Tesla who died in 1744 and became a vampire. The 'return' bit in the title refers not to his return after the action of a previous film, but rather from part one of this film, set in WWI, to part two set during WWII. In the WWI sequence, he is detected, tracked to his mausoleum and staked by a Professor Walter Saunders of King's College, Oxford, with the help of his physician friend Lady Jane Ainsley. But then in the 1940s the stake is removed from his chest after an air-strike on the cemetery where his body lies by two well-meaning air-raid wardens who think it's a piece of shrapnel. Though Saunders has died in the meantime (Tesla claims because he cursed him), Lady Jane, her son John and Saunders' granddaughter Nikki are all still very much alive, so Tesla comes after them in search of vengeance.
It's a bit of an average film overall, but it has some interesting features. One is that the WWI sequence is introduced as being based on notes compiled by Professor Saunders, which then also have an important role to play within the story of the WWII part, as a source of in-story information for the characters on Tesla and how he operates. The device of introducing a story about the supernatural by saying it's based on some documentary evidence (common to Le Fanu, Stoker and M.R. James) has been catching my eye a lot this year, and I might try to tease out my thoughts about it a little more coherently in other reviews, but for now I just want to note the combination of having the documents attest to the story but also feature within the story, and look out for how often that is or isn't the case with other examples.
Lady Jane Ainsley is of course also a big plus. She is shown throughout as a fully competent medical professional, who plays the role of The Sceptic Who Becomes Convinced alongside Prof Saunders, the more Van Helsingish figure who already believes in vampires from the start. She is also beautiful, elegantly dressed, an accomplished organ player and an attentive mother to her son, John - so very much the 1940s image of the woman who has it all. In the 1940s sequence, she is even helping to receive prisoners smuggled in the UK out of Nazi camps, not to mention leading the response against Tesla once she realises he is back from the grave. Perhaps all a response to the greater recognition of women's capabilities which had come about because of the roles they were playing within the war effort, though it's noticeable that she still apparently has to be from the aristocracy for any of this to be plausible.
Tesla's vampirism is much in line with previous screen portrayals of Dracula, though rather more use is made of him appearing and disappearing out of mist than I think was the case in any of the Universal pictures. He even does the same drawing-room charm act as the 1931 Dracula, this time by stealing the identity of a prisoner rescued from the Nazi camps so that he can come to Nikki's engagement party, kiss ladies' hands and talk science with Lady Jane. One device I can't remember ever seeing in any other vampire film, although it seems obvious once demonstrated, is that when Prof Saunders and Lady Jane find Tesla in his coffin during the WWI sequence, he proves to her that Tesla is a vampire by simply holding up a mirror to the body - which of course reflects nothing. There are some effective visual devices, like when a single pane of glass in a child's bedroom window pops out, allowing the mist to enter, followed by an image of his shadow looming ominously over her bed; scenes of Nikki under Tesla's spell wandering through a graveyard in a long white nightie; or the use of what must surely have been an actual bombed-out church for the climactic scenes at the end of the film.
Other interesting bits and bobs include Andreas, Tesla's werewolf servant, whose werewolfism turns out to be a manifestation of Tesla's power over him which disappears on Tesla's death, but then returns once he is revived. Andreas ends up playing quite a similar role to Sandor in Dracula's Daughter (1936) at the end, when he turns against Tesla after he refuses to help Andreas when he has been shot. There was also an example of a doublethink about crosses which occurs pretty commonly in vampire films of this era - Tesla repelled by a cross in one scene, only to be shown standing in a graveyard full of cross-shaped headstones which apparently don't bother him in the least bit in the next. And the film ends with a breaking of the fourth wall, as the sceptical Scotland Yard inspector who still doesn't believe in vampires despite everything which has happened turns to ask the audience whether we do.
I suspect some members of the Hammer team had seen this film, as would be no great surprise given that they made their Dracula only 15 years later. Some familiar devices which I spotted included:
- Visually confirming for us that a patient with suspected anaemia (actually a victim of Tesla of course) has died in Lady Jane's clinic by pulling a sheet over her face, much like Lucy in Hammer's Dracula.
- Using a silhouette to convey Professor Saunders staking Tesla, like Jonathan Harker early on in Dracula.
- Autumn leaves blowing in through the French window and across the floor of Nikki's bedroom, much like Lucy's.
- Tesla saying explicitly that he will get revenge on Jane for her role in destroying him in the WWI sequence by working through those she loves, which is a bit there in Dracula, but really comes out in Risen, Taste, AD 1972 and Satanic Rites.
- The attempt to show Tesla's face melting through special effects after he is destroyed by a combination of sunlight and staking at the end - not as effective as Hammers, but a good effort nevertheless.