Monday, April 14, 2008

Vampires in Mayberry

The Vampire (1957)
The Return of Dracula (1958)

The Return of Dracula shouldn't be confused with 1944's The Return of the Vampire. That one starred Bela Lugosi as "Armand Tesla;" the one I'm talking about stars Francis Lederer as Dracula, who's disguised as an expatriate artist named Bellac Gordal. If you think that's confusing, you should try to do research on a movie when all you know about it is the title The Vampire. On the IMDB, there are three "exact matches," none of them right, and 337 partial matches to wade through. Its alternate title was Mark of the Vampire -- also the title of Lugosi and Tod Browning's 1935 follow-up to the original Dracula, so that's not exactly helpful either.

The two movies in question, both written by Pat Fiedler and directed by Paul Landres, place vampire mythology and imagery in the context of wholesome, small-town Americana: I've described them to various people as "vampires in Mayberry." (Oddly, that's before I discovered that the clean-cut family in Return is actually named Mayberry). A similar theme also turns up in a segment of the British horror anthology Dr. Terror's House of Horror, a movie I've always admired because it takes place on a train, and not in any kind of building. The "house" is a metaphor for Peter Cushing's Tarot deck. It makes no sense, but they stick with it.

At any rate, as a kid in a sleepy Minnesota town, I remember seeing an unknown movie along this line, and was impressed by the idea of vampires turning up not only in distant Transylvanian castles, but right in the everyday world. Since the films have been released as one of the MGM "Midnite Movies" discs, I watched them as a double feature, and now I'm fairly confident that I saw at least part of The Vampire. The scene in which the doctor goes to the Hideaway supper club, after which his nurse gets chased down a shadowy street, definitely had a creepy familiarity.

The Vampire tells the more reality-based tale, of a kindly small-town doctor who accidentally takes an experimental drug, synthesized from vampire bats, that causes a regression to a Mr. Hyde-like primitive state. When he bites his victims on the neck, they're infected with a rare virus that causes complete "cellular disintegration." As if that weren't bad enough, the drug is habit-forming, so we see an early example of the vampirism-as-addiction metaphor that would later become so popular.

The Return of Dracula opens with a delightful narrative about how the existence of the famous vampire is "a known fact!" A group of vampire hunters in stylish new cars work undercover as faux immigration officials, tracking Dracula to the California town where he's living under a stolen identity with an all-American family. Vampire elements more traditional than the ones in The Vampire are grafted onto a Shadow of a Doubt-like storyline, with a teenage girl's hero-worship for her eccentric relative. Sadly, though, the filmmakers pull all the punches that Hitchcock didn't.

I didn't recognize Lederer from his role in the all-time classic Pandora's Box, but it was a thrill to make the connection. At first glance, I thought he looked rather Harry Dean Stanton-ish. That turned out to be a fleeting impression, but still: wouldn't Stanton be a great vampire? Also, the movie doesn't make much of it, but it's implied that the real cousin Bellac was leaving a Communist country for the U.S., where he could practice his art without government interference. Even though he's the first victim (and at the fangs of a count, no less -- a remnant of the old aristocracy), he's still circuitously reponsible for the entry of the old-world horror into the pleasant small town. I can't help seeing a little Cold War subtext about how even Eastern Europe's refugees weren't to be trusted, but then, we former English majors have a tendency to read things in.

While both movies are entertaining in a lazy, overcast Sunday kind of way (one of my favorite horror-watching moods), I have to give first place to The Vampire. The shiny happy cast of Return of Dracula can't really compete with the oddball supporting characters from The Vampire, such as the anti-social grad student described as "phlegmatic, but seething inside" by the guy who supplies the research grants. And for sheer scariness, the over-arching theme of safe small town menaced by a threat from without pales next to the threat of the the menace from within. In The Vampire, a trivial mistake leads to tragedy, and the monster turns out to be someone everyone knows and trusts. Even worse, it offers the possibility that, like the doctor, other decent people can turn into monsters themselves, if they're unlucky enough.

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