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In The Return of the Vampire (1944), Bela Lugosi plays a vampire for the first time since 1931's Dracula (Mark of the Vampire  doesn't count because he was playing a fake vampire). In fact, his character for all intents and purposes is Dracula, though since this is a Columbia film and not a Universal film, the name "Dracula" could not be used. No matter. Columbia simply named him "Armand Tesla" and proceeded with a story set in London during World War II. A Nazi bombing raid upturns Tesla's coffin and cemetery workers find it, complete with a stake still protruding from Tesla's heart. Shocked, they remove it and rebury him, but of course that doesn't stop Tesla from coming back to life. Before long, he's got a werewolf assistant (Matt Willis) and is back to his old game: searching for the blood of young women, in particular that of Nina Foch (here making her feature debut). In the end, the werewolf turns against his master and drags him into the sun, where his face melts in a surprisingly graphic effect which was created by melting a wax mask of Lugosi's face. The werewolf, by the way, was another copyrighted character, and Columbia was not allowed to use make-up which resembled Universal's werewolf. Consequently, this is one of the more kindly and pathetic-looking werewolves in movie history.
When Columbia approached Lugosi for this picture, the actor jumped at the offer. He'd lately been stuck playing in cheap Monogram programmers and was excited at the notion of headlining a major studio production, even a B movie like this one. Worried that in haggling over money he might not get the part, he agreed to a salary of $3500, the same amount he had received for Dracula in 1931. In truth, Columbia chief Harry Cohn wanted Lugosi so much that he probably would have paid the actor more. The Return of the Vampire would end up the last major studio production with Lugosi in a leading role; his career would afterwards decline towards parody.
Classic film authority William Everson called the acting in The Return of the Vampire "definitely a cut above the average. Nina Foch, always an interesting actress, gave [her] part far more poignancy than the script really required. Lugosi made the most of his rich dialogue and colorful fog-accompanied entrances and exits. His Vampire this time was singularly ill-humored, and devoid of the smooth social graces of Dracula."
Nina Foch, who went on to a successful career as an actress and drama coach (and is still working as of 2006), later spoke of her first movie: "I was in a lot of drippy negligees and things and vampires were picking me up and it was all a very interesting experience. Bela Lugosi smelled of sulfur water, which he was drinking a lot. I don't know where he got it but it was Hungarian and there was a war on...So he always smelled of sulfur, which is quite a strong odor, but he was a very nice man,...very gracious to me."
The Dutch-born Foch also recalled the way Hollywood saw her in those early years: "Everyone [at Columbia] said I was such a good actress. They were so sorry I wasn't pretty or didn't have any sex appeal...the reason being that in those days women that had sex appeal had big breasts, thick lips, you know, round. And I wasn't. I was very skinny and tall and high cheek-boned and all that and I didn't look like I came from a farm in Iowa. I looked like a European, which I am. And so I was getting wonderful work because they thought I was a good actor... Only a few years later they decided I was pretty and did have sex appeal."
The Return of the Vampire was ready for release in the fall of 1943, but Cohn pushed it to Jan. 1, 1944, so as not to compete with Universal's Son of Dracula (1943), starring Lon Chaney, Jr. The Return of the Vampire performed well enough at the box office to cause other studios to start making their own B vampire films.
The story device of bringing a vampire back from the dead by removing the stake from his heart would be used again in Universal's House of Frankenstein (1944), in which John Carradine played Dracula.
Producer: Sam White
Director: Lew Landers
Screenplay: Randall Faye, Griffin Jay
Cinematography: L.W. O'Connell, John Stumar
Film Editing: Paul Borofsky
Art Direction: Lionel Banks, Victor Greene
Music: Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco
Cast: Bela Lugosi (Armand Tesla/Dr. Hugo Bruckner), Frieda Inescort (Lady Jane Ainsley), Nina Foch (Nicki Saunders), Miles Mander (Sir Frederick Fleet), Roland Varno (John Ainsley), Matt Willis (Andreas Obry).
by Jeremy Arnold
Arthur Lennig, The Life and Films of Bela Lugosi