aka The Fantastic Disappearing Man
Director – Paul Landres, Screenplay – Pat Fielder, Producers – Arthur Gardner & Jules W. Levy, Photography (b&w) – Jack MacKenzie, Music – Gerald Fried, Art Direction – James P. Vance. Production Company – Gramercy Pictures
Francis Lederer (Count Dracula/Bellac Gordal), Norma Eberhardt (Rachel Mayberry), Greta Granstedt (Cora Mayberry), Gage Clark (Doctor/Reverend Whitfield), Ray Stricklyn (Tim Hansen), John Wengraf (Merriman), Virginia Vincent (Jenny Blake), Jimmie Baird (Mickey Mayberry), John McNamara (Sheriff Bicknell)
In the small town of Carterton, California, widow Cora Mayberry awaits the arrival of her cousin Bellac Gordal, an artist from the Balkans. Bellac arrives and proves courtly and gracious. Cora and her daughter Rachel soon notice strange things about Bellac – that he only comes out at night and is rarely home. Jenny, a blind girl that Rachel nurses, becomes hysterical about someone appearing at her window and then dies mysteriously. An official from immigration comes asking questions about Bellac, trying to ascertain the identity of a body that was thrown from a train. Merriman, a detective from the Balkans, also arrives, certain that Bellac is none other than Count Dracula and that Dracula has murdered the real Bellac and stolen his identity.
The Return of Dracula was one of a handful of genre films made in the 1950s by director Paul Landres and screenwriter Pat Fielder. Landres and Fielder also made a further vampire film with The Vampire (1957), which made an interesting attempt to explain vampirism medically, as well as The Flame Barrier (1958) about a satellite returned to Earth carrying an alien substance. On his own, Fielder also wrote the script for The Monster That Challenged the World (1957) and several years later the sf/disaster tv mini-series Goliath Awaits (1981). Elsewhere, Paul Landres made a number of Westerns and directed a good deal of television.
Alas, all of Paul Landres’s genre material has a flat, pedestrian monotony that is unlikely to ever make his films rediscovered as gems as other B-budget directors of the era like Edgar G. Ulmer have been. Cast as Dracula, the Czech-born Francis Lederer has a dull ordinariness – he seems more like a door-to-door salesman than a dangerous supernatural predator. There are occasional moments that stand out – Dracula appearing to Virginia Vincent’s Jenny and subsequently as a mist. Other scenes – like Jenny’s attack of Bryant and the appearance of the white dog – are flat and unevocative, as though Landres has conspired to find the least possible atmospheric interpretation of the material.
At the climax, some of the scenes almost manage to surmount the pedestrianness of Landres’s handling, particularly during the scenes with Norma Eberhardt discovering that Francis Lederer has no reflection; the opening of Jenny’s coffin to find her alive but imprisoned by the crucifix and her staking (where the black-and-white screen momentarily flashes red for a splash of blood as the stake is hammered in); and the showdown with Dracula in the mine where he hypnotises Ray Stricklyn to drop the crucifix, only to fall back into an open pit and be impaled on a wooden stake. The script does have the odd amusing idea – like Dracula coming to America and promptly being hounded by INS as an illegal alien (an idea that would have amusing potential for a comedy some day).
No better contrast can show how routine The Return of Dracula is than to point to another vampire film that came out one month later the same year – Hammer’s landmark Dracula/The Horror of Dracula (1958). Where Paul Landres plods prosaically and above all takes his conception of vampirism and Dracula from where Bela Lugosi trod nearly 30 years earlier, Hammer moved Dracula into colour, gave the film a dynamic directorial charge and recast Dracula with a snarling and regally imperious Christopher Lee. Alongside Hammer’s Dracula, The Return of Dracula at once seems old-fashioned and only looking back instead of breaking new ground.