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Celebrating 125 Years of ‘Dracula’ – Bruce Markusen Spotlights Some of the Best Movies of the Count

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Celebrating 125 Years of 'Dracula' - Bruce Markusen Spotlights Some of the Best Movies of the Count

As we continue to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Bram Stoker’s iconic novel, Dracula, it seems like the right time to spotlight some of the best Dracula-themed films in history. So let’s do just that over the next few months. First up for consideration is one of the least publicized of the Dracula movies, but one that is deserving of more recognition.

The Return of Dracula has become a cult favorite among fans of vintage horror, particularly those who enjoy films in old-style black and white. Making its debut in April of 1958, The Return of Dracula received little fanfare at the time and did poorly at the box office, in large part because it was overshadowed by Horror of Dracula, a bigger budget production from Hammer Films that was shot in full color.

Directed by the underrated Paul Landres, who was known primarily for his TV work but also brought us The Vampire in 1957, the film reacquaints us with Dracula, first introduced by Stoker in his 1897 novel. The character gained additional prominence with the 1922 release of Nosferatu, emerged as an iconic figure thanks to Bela Lugosi’s performance in the 1931 film, and then retained popularity in a number of 1940s films, including House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, Son of Dracula, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. In the 1958 adaptation, Landres presents a story that begins on a train in modern day Transylvania, where Dracula kills a passenger who is beginning an immigrant journey to the United States. After murdering the innocent man, who is named Bellac Gordal, The Count takes on his identity. An immigrant artist, Bellac was attempting to move to California to live with his relatives, the Mayberry family, but his stateside kin had never actually seen him, not even in photographs.

Return of Dracula 1958 Francis Lederer

When Dracula, masquerading as the immigrant, arrives at the Mayberrys’ home, widowed mother Cora and her daughter Rachel assume that he is exactly who he purports to be—their friendly Cousin Bellac. Completely unaware of Bellac’s true fate, the friendly Mayberrys invite The Count into their home. They regard him as charming, if a little eccentric. His behavior, particularly his habit of sleeping throughout the day, will soon rouse suspicions. He will eventually target a victim, a young girl named Jennie, who is Rachel’s close friend.

The character of Dracula is played by an excellent actor named Francis Lederer, who himself was an immigrant from Czechoslovakia. After coming to the United States, Lederer learned to speak English, so that he could act in films featuring sound, which were becoming prevalent in the early 1930s. Although Lederer never gained the acclaim of Lugosi or Christopher Lee, he forged out a fine career that included work in films, television, and on the stage. In The Return of Dracula, he gives us a stylish and sinister portrayal of the evil vampire. Sleek and suave in appearance, Lederer is reminiscent of Lugosi, who had died three years earlier, but his European accent is less obtrusive than Lugosi’s and his portrayal is even more devilish. In the manner of Lugosi, Lederer performs his role without fangs and executes his crimes without onscreen bloodshed, but his demeanor is so unsettling and so oily that he creates even more fear than the great Lugosi.

Rather strangely, Lederer revealed in interviews that he hated The Return of Dracula. Claiming that his agent had tricked him into accepting the role, Lederer regretted his participation. In reality, Lederer was far too hard on himself. His performance is varied, layered, and wholly effective. At first, he is charming and charismatic while purporting to be Cousin Bellac, but he gradually reveals his ominous identity, culminating in death and destruction in his newfound California home. Lederer elevates the film, making it a quality production, rising above a small budget. Objectively, he had no reason to be ashamed of his participation. It was a performance noted by others in Hollywood, particularly Rod Serling, who had Lederer reprise his role as Dracula for a memorable episode of Night Gallery called “The Devil is Not Mocked.”

The Return of Dracula 1958

The rest of the cast is overshadowed by Lederer, but none of the lesser-known actors detract from the film’s effectiveness. Norma Eberhardt, a model turned actress, is quite good as daughter Rachel, an innocent and trusting young woman who treats her alleged cousin with decency and respect. Another key player is Rachel’s boyfriend Tim, played by Ray Stricklyn, better known for his work in B-movie Westerns. Character actor John Wengraf, a native of Vienna who was forced to leave his homeland because of growing Nazi terror in the late 1930s, is also effective. Wengraf plays a visiting police investigator from Europe who becomes suspicious of the alleged Bellac and eventually learns that he is not the friendly immigrant he appears to be.

In addition to the individual performances, The Return of Dracula succeeds because of its stark black-and-white imagery, an excellent musical score, and the generally fine direction of Landres. The film has drawn some criticism for its overly simple story and its lack of headlining actors, but it still manages to achieve status as a highly atmospheric film, one that transforms a classic Gothic storyline into a modern day American setting. It is a film that accomplishes what it sets out to do, entertaining us and frightening us with a classic story about decent people fighting against the evil of a bloodthirsty vampire.

The Return of Dracula is good, old-fashioned horror, and an excellent continuation of Dracula’s long legacy.


Bruce has a new book out titled Hosted Horror on Television, which you can order right now through the McfarlandBooks website.

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