B&W, 1943, 69 mins. 16 secs.
Directed by Lew Landers
Starring Bela Lugosi, Frieda Inescourt, Nina Foch, Miles Mander, Roland Varno, Gilbert Emery
Scream Factory (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Sony (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)

A The Return of the Vampire truly unique The Return of the Vampireclassic monster movie made during World War II that directly addresses current events, The Return of the Vampire superficially seems (on the basis of its title) to be an attempt to lure in viewers with the promise of Bela Lugosi reprising his most famous role, Dracula. The film was made by Columbia instead of Universal with Lugosi instead playing Armand Tesla, a bloodsucker first seen preying on young women in London during World War I.

One of the vampire's exsanguinated victims turns up at a clinic and draws the attention of Lady Jane Ainsley (Inescourt) and Professor Saunders (Emery), with the latter realizing that "a fantastic something that draws blood from the human body through the jugular veins of its victim" is at work and is also going after his young granddaughter. The pair soon track down the culprit to a graveyard where his familiar, a werewolf named Andréas (Emery), stands guard and tries to stop them. They manage to succeed in driving a stake into Tesla's heart, but twenty-four years later, a bombing blasts open the vampire's coffin and leads to the removal of the stake. Free again, Tesla poses as a dead scientist and plots revenge against Lady Jane by going after her son, John (Varno), and Saunders' now-grown granddaughter, The Return of the VampireNikki (Foch), while Scotland Yard inspector Sir Frederick Fleet (Mander) refuses to believe The Return of the Vampiresomething supernatural is afoot.

As compact, atmospheric, and entertaining as any of the era's other monster movies, The Return of the Vampire takes its time getting Lugosi to center stage (almost a third of the way in); fortunately you'll barely notice with some much else going including a great deal of time spent with Andréas, one of the screen's most loquacious werewolves and a fascinating antihero of sorts who plays a major role in the finale. The original intention to make this a Dracula film would have resulted in an interesting attempt to bring the famous monster into the turbulent present day, but studio politics forbade it with Universal offering its own variation, the noir-inspired Son of Dracula, at the same time.

Not surprisingly, Columbia (and then Sony) kept this one in wide circulation since its early VHS release, which seemed to appear in every single video store on the planet for years. It was also one of the studio's earlier upgrades to DVD, and since the elements have never been in bad shape, it's always been fairly easy to appreciate regardless of the format. That said, the 2019 Blu-ray release from Scream Factory still feels like a big step up with a very impressive level of detail on The Return of the Vampiredisplay along with fine, very natural film grain throughout. The Return of the VampireSome minor damage apparently baked into a few shots is still there, but it's easy to overlook given the sumptuous look we have here. The DTS-HD MA English mono audio (with optional English SDH subtitles) is also in prime condition. Incredibly, the film comes with three new audio commentaries, all of which take different and sometimes surprising angles on the film. Author and film historian Gary Don Rhodes takes the historical route with a wealth of studio info about how the project came about, with details about everything from the screenplay process through the comparatively smooth process with the Production Code and the casting and production under prolific director Lew Landers. Then Troy Howarth takes a jovial look at the film in the wider context of classic horror cinema and Lugosi's output, also studding in trivia about the production while contextualizing what was happening at Universal around the same time. Finally, author Lee Gambin focuses on werewolves of the 1940s, adapting an unused essay for his book on The Howling to spoken form and exploring how this film and some of its peers of the era fit in with the larger cycle of lycanthrope cinema from The Wolf Man onward. An image gallery (5m16s) of posters and stills is included along with a very dupey trailer; though not advertised, you also get the really fun Super 8 version of the film (8m20s), which is silent (with some pertinent subtitles) and crams a lot of action into a short amount of time.

Reviewed on February 14, 2019.