The least you can expect from a director, approaching a story as venerable as Dracula, is that he or she will have the guts to take it seriously. Updating the legend to modern day is even more possible when you figure out new versions of old terrors. The 1958 The Return of Dracula, an economical and effective black and white horror film released by UA, stars the ageless Czech-American actor Frances Lederer. Before Lederer's death in 2000, he claimed that his only regret as an actor was appearing in this film, possibly because of its gore content (it was gory by the standards of '58, that is). Apparently, his regret wasn't that Drac was some sort of anti-Eastern European stereotype, seeing as how Lederer reprised the Count as his very last role in "The Devil is Not Mocked," an episode of TV's Night Gallery directed by Legend of Hillbilly John's Manly Wade Wellman. (The plot of that episode is the perfect example of the first story that comes to a novice horror-writer's mind, and which has to be discarded right away: During World War 2, Nazi soldiers commandeer a certain castle, and...)
Well, it scared me, but it must have been the actor, not the story. Lederer is a Dracula to reckon with in The Return of Dracula as he helps himself to the denizens of Carleton, California (population 1162). "His sole purpose is to establish a chain of domination, " says the Van Helsing guy, an "European Police Agency" investigator called Meiermann (Jon Wengraff). This budget Drac was exhibited as The Curse of Dracula, and The Fantastic Disappearing Man--the latter title is an apt description of this one's modest special effects. But I've got an alternate title: I Was a Communist Vampire. Director Paul Landres zeros in on the Red Scare to give this Dracula some teeth. Leaving Communist eastern Europe for America, Bellac Gordal kisses his family goodbye forever at the station: "In America, you will be free." Unfortunately, Bellac's partner in his train compartment is that certain someone, who has escaped one step ahead of a staking party. (The opening sequences, scored to that grim liturgical piece "Dies Irae," "the Day of Wrath," has film noir speed: a grim group in modern dress in an anonymous cemetery, waiting for a bleak sunrise so they can carry out their task, before they discover an empty coffin.)
Now posing as Bellac, Dracula arrives to meet his American cousins. They include his pretty cousin Rachel (Norma Eberhardt) and her slightly scatterbrained mother Cora (Greta Granstedt), neither of whom apparently has ever laid eyes on their Balkan relative.
In an expert pinching from Shadow of a Doubt--there's also a brilliant steal from Spellbound, for that matter--Rachel begins to have a crush on her strange cousin Bellac; his nocturnal habits, his strange manners, and his interest in her art. All very different from the kind of things she experiences from her clumsy boyfriend Tim. Playing Tim, Ray Stricklyn gives the character rough edges, as if Nicholas Ray were secretly directing him: he's loud and a little grabby.
And then the deaths start to occur; first a kitten, and then an ailing blind girl Jenny (Virginia Vincent, very good in the role) who is first seduced and then made a minion: "I can take you out of blindness into the light," Dracula says. To his credit, Lederer, a tall, thin actor with an old/young face and a high, neurotic voice, never has to identify himself: "I think you know who I am," he says, and that's as close as he gets. Another smart angle: if you were Dracula, would you go around telling everyone who you were? He wears a loose, if ordinary suit coat and tie, and a rakishly tilted fedora, and like everyone good who plays Dracula he makes it work with a piercing stare and an air of eternity. Lederer was superb in Renoir's Diary of a Chambermaid as the sinister servant, and he shows he'd lost nothing of his noteworthy menace since that film.
Dracula's misdeeds include the whole Communist agenda such as might be imagined by a 1958 moviegoer. Posing as an honest refugee, he infiltrates an American family, and deludes them with a lot of foreign talk of art. "He's an artist, of a sort," allows Meiermann. (He does a drawing of Rachel, as we see: the kind of thing Dracula would think of as erotic, a sketch of the girl in her coffin.) He's a nihilist too, "There is only one reality and that is death," he claims, following this implicit foreign Godless communism by rejecting the cross, and embracing blasphemy: "You shall rise reborn in me," he claims.
Seeing as how Commie peril is deader than vaudeville, does this horror movie work? Maybe I'm being too forgiving of a solid low-budget movie, which got a good yelp out of me from a Spellbound trick, which I've said too much about already. Besides Lederer, it has Gerald (Paths of Glory) Fried's thundering score, and a fine moment of the resurrected Jenny beckoning a detective to his death--the latter scene praised by the horror film expert Phil Hardy as like something out of Franju's Eyes Without A Face. Perhaps most stimulating is how well this little film shows how Dracula could be revived in the midst of a completely unlikely setting, of a dustball California town, and still keep the power of the old tale intact.