Friday, June 15, 2012

The Return of Dracula (1958): A Classic Monster in Eisenhower-Era America


I was looking around Netflix's on-demand list of horror titles the other day when I found this curiosity: The Return of Dracula from 1958.


When I was growing up in the 80s, books about horror movies usually divided Dracula movies into two eras: the Universal era during the 30s and 40s, and the Hammer era during the 50s, 60s and 70s. Thus, to see an American Dracula movie from 1958 listed anywhere was a surprise to me, so I decided to watch it to see how the King of Vampires fared in America during the 50s.

The Return of Dracula begins with Dracula (played by Francis Lederer) fleeing the authorities in Transylvania. He murders and assumes the identity of Czech artist named Bellac, who is traveling to America to visit his cousins in California. While maintaining his guise as Bellac, Dracula stays with Bellac's cousins while he begins to build a new army of the undead. In other words, this movie is Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943) but with vampires.

Given the time it was made, I could see why a Hollywood studio would think that Dracula could fit in with the Cold War paranoia that was prevalent during the 50s in America. After all, the movie features a foreigner with a strange accent and a strong aversion of Christian iconography who arrives in small town America to seduce young people into a depraved lifestyle; if that isn't a Red Scare-based film plot, I don't know what is. Furthermore, if my anti-communism assumption is correct, then it's fun to see a movie like this depict a Halloween costume party--which includes a kid dressed up as Satan--as a wholesome, all-American activity. (Boy, how times have changed.)

This film isn't nearly as bold and stylish as Hammer's Horror of Dracula, which appeared later in the same year, so it's understandable why this movie didn't lead to more American-made Dracula films in the years since. Nevertheless, The Return of Dracula does have its charms, particularly Lederer's portrayal of Dracula. Even though the body count achieved by this Dracula is quite modest in comparison to other versions, Lederer's interpretation of the role reminds viewers that Dracula's greatest power is neither his superhuman strength nor his invulnerability, but his seductive, indomitable will.

If you can get past the idea of Dracula resorting to the lowly crime of identity theft to continue his feedings, then I strongly recommend The Return of Dracula to Dracula film completists and retro-horror fans. If you wax nostalgic for the times when syndicated TV stations would run older and sometimes lesser-known horror and sci-fi movies on the weekends, this movie is for you.



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