Bela strikes back as another of the bloodsucking undead in this atmospheric and entertaining chiller from Columbia Pictures.
As German fighter planes regularly storm the skies over Great Britain during the days of World War I, the evil Armand Tesla (Lugosi) preys upon the unsuspecting inhabitants of a nearby town, emerging from his rotting tomb each night with the aid of his werewolf slave Andreas (Willis).
But Lady Jane Ainsley (Inescort) and Professor Saunders (Emery) become savvy to the supernatural threat in their midst after Tesla attacks Saundersí granddaughter. Journeying to the cemetery, the duo promptly stakes the fiend through his heart as he lies in his coffin, breaking the dark spell cast over Andreas in the process.
Decades later Janeís son John (Varno) is engaged to Nikki Saunders (Foch), Andreas is a dutiful assistant to Jane in the laboratory, and all appears to be well.
That is until an air raid disturbs the cemetery Tesla has been reposing in with a small bombing session, leading two laborers to find the cadaver and remove the stick from its ribcage!
Now Armand is back in town with a new name and his furry familiar at his sideÖ and he has his eyes set on avenging his undeath with the blood of the Ainsley clan.
Though this flick might be deemed as second-tier within the realm of Golden Age Horror, thereís no denying that this one is chock-a-block with the creaky antiquities and dark passion of Gothic melodrama that would make any fanís heart beat in admiration.
The cemetery is a particularly spectacular set piece: decrepit, overgrown with weeds, and with a perpetually rolling fog used for optimum effect.
The Return of the Vampire is notable for its use of elements that had previously been verboten in horror films -- such as Lugosiís own Dracula (1931) -- namely the sight of Tesla rising from his coffin and a close-up shot of the vampireís needlepoint bite marks on a victimís throat.
Not only that, but we get a feisty attack on a poor, screaming child that leaves its viciousness to imagination thanks to a handily-timed burst of mist.
The technical aspects are superb, from the cinematography to the eerie lighting that allows Lugosi (who seems a little worn and grey compared to his sleek days as the Count) to take on an air of real supernatural menace as the vengeful vamp.
A standout bit is the scene where Tesla warns Lady Jane of his mission as she plays at the organ, the underlight casting Lugosi in a demonic glow before the holy light of a carven crucifix repels him back into the darkness.
Though the story has its plot holes (doesnít Lady Jane recognize Tesla even under his new identity?) and is given to some goofy moments (Andreas, in full werewolf mode, punches a man squarely in the face), The Return of the Vampire is a fun and moody programmer that gets extra points for bringing an old premise to spirited life.