One of the things the Cap'n doesn't do as much as I'd like to during Horror Fest is showcase older horror movies. Oh sure, every now and then I'll throw in something from the 50s or 60s, but they're few and far between, and in all honesty, I first came to be a fan of horror films because of a friend of my father's. He used to tape AMC's Monster Fest for me, back when AMC showed movies without interruption and had Robert Osborne providing information before the films (in other words, when AMC was Turner Classic Movies), and they used to have Universal Classic Monster triple features on Saturdays. I still have those tapes, with Dracula and Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Bride of Frankenstein, and my personal favorite at the time, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. They would even have non-Universal films like King Kong, and that's how I slowly made my venture into watching "scary" movies.
It's my own doing, but I've never really shared that experience with Horror Fest audiences. In fact, the only movie with Bela Lugosi I've ever shown at a Fest was Plan 9 from Outer Space, which a) barely has any Lugosi in it and b) was used as a key example of why I found M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening so amusing. So it seemed like seven years in, it was time to give classic horror it's due.
I chose three Bela Lugosi vampire films - Dracula, Mark of the Vampire, and Return of the Vampire - because there's an interesting through line for the first two and the third one is clearly designed to use the name recognition of the second, but also because they're all better than one might expect in their own right. Lugosi tends to get the short shrift of the classic horror stars, in part because he worked a lot, and a lot of the films he worked on weren't very good, but also because these days he's as associated with Ed Wood as he is with playing Count Dracula, and not in a good way. It's a shame, because there are a lot of very good Bela Lugosi films (The Black Cat, The Raven) or roles where he plays a fine supporting role (Son of Frankenstein). Still, I thought it would be fun to have a vampire triptych, so let's take a look at that, shall we?
And, of course, there's Lugosi as Dracula, who loves his "children of the night" and "never drink(s)... wine." Reprising the role that made him famous on the stage, Lugosi's gaze and Hungarian accent make him instantly memorable to anyone who has ever seen the film. Both menacing and alluring, repulsive and erotic, Dracula benefits immensely from Lugosi's presence, keeping the rather dull second half and abrupt conclusion palatable.
"Vampires in the twentieth century? Don't be ridiculous!"
Meanwhile, Baron Otto (Jean Hersholt) is charged with taking care of the estate, including the impending nuptials of Karell's daughter Irena (Elizabeth Allan) to Fedor (Henry Wadsworth), both of whom appear to be the new targets of Count Mora and Luna. With the arrival of Professor Zeller (Lionel Barrymore) comes the promise of saving the family from this vampire curse, and from the castle they've abandoned, even as Mora resurrects Karell to join his undead cabal.
For most of the film this seems to be where Mark of the Vampire is going, until it takes an abrupt turn with about fifteen minutes to go, and to say anymore risks massive SPOILER territory. So I'm going to mark the next section accordingly and if you don't want to know what the twist in Mark of the Vampire is, I'll meet you in the Return of the Vampire section.
SPOILERS FOR MARK OF THE VAMPIRE BEGIN HERE
It turns out, in a very unusual transition, that there ARE no vampires. Professor Zeller, in an attempt to trick Baron Otto into confessing to the murder of Sir Karell, constructed an elaborate ruse involving Count Mora, Luna, and an undead Karell in order to hypnotize the Baron. Everyone, with the exception of Fedor, is in on the hoax, we're led to believe (or need to believe if you want to accept the sudden shift in narrative and tone). Mora and Luna are actually actors hired to play the vampires, playing into the Baron's superstitious nature, and Irena goes along, despite her reservations. To be fair, the Professor is exploiting her father's death and using a look-a-like that she needs to pretend is her father as they re-enact the night of his murder. It is a little tasteless.
The twist is a little difficult to reconcile because so much of the film involves characters who must have known that this was a hoax (especially, as we learn, because the Professor arrives a year AFTER Karell's death) but disappear shortly after the twist is revealed (in particular I'm thinking of the Maid, who comes in as part of the Professor's plan, it would seem, but either doesn't know that Luna and Mora aren't vampires or is very good at playing scared for characters who are in on the ruse. There are a number of scenes that have nothing to do with the Baron that advance the vampire story, misleading the audience until very late in the film.
After we discover what the film is really about, Browning wraps things up nicely with a few scenes of our heroes celebrating, and then Mora joking to Luna that he should be the lead vampire next time, much to her amusement.
SPOILERS FOR MARK OF THE VAMPIRE END HERE
"It looks like the Jerries dug up his grave for us!"
Lady Jane Ainsley (Frieda Inescort), with the help of Doctor Walter Saunders (Gilbert Emery), seek to stop Tesla after he attacks Saunder's daughter Nicki (Sherlee Collier) and before he can reach her son John (Donald Dewar). They track down Tesla to his tomb and manage to drive a stake through his heart, freeing Andreas from his servitude, and Ainsley takes the former wolf man back to her institute to rehabilitate him.
Twenty three years later, Saunders dies in a train crash and Sir Fredrick Fleet (Miles Mander) of Scotland Yard comes into possession of his diaries. Needless to say, he's not pleased with the idea of Lady Ainsley driving a stake into someone's heart, and orders an investigation of her actions. Unfortunately, the Nazis are bombing London, and during one of the Luftwaffe air raids, they blow open the unmarked grave Saunders and Ainsley moved Tesla to. Two gravediggers unwittingly remove the stake from his heart and re-bury the vampire, but he returns.
To Return of the Vampire's credit, when Tesla comes back, he isn't content simply to be a vampire in London. No, he wants revenge on Lady Ainsley for stealing twenty three years, and he starts by finding Andreas and transforming him back into a wolf (a talking wolf, but I'll overlook that), but using his servant's association with the Lady to his advantage. After Andreas kills the real scientist, Tesla poses as Doctor Hugo Bruckner, a scientist smuggled out of a concentration camp and back into London, who Ainsley provides unfettered access to her facilities. Tesla sets his sights on ruining the wedding of the now adult John Ainsley (Roland Varno) and Nicki Saunders (Nina Foch) as his ultimate revenge...
I wasn't expecting too much from Return of the Vampire - the 1943 (IMDB says 1944) production seemed suspiciously like a cash-in on Lugosi's decade plus affiliation with Dracula (even Mark of the Vampire was from 1935), but the film cleverly uses World War II to its advantage, and the bombed out portions of London become the setting of a very different sort of vampire film. It also helps that Tesla has a plan and implements it, rather than wandering around aimlessly finding victims (like Mora in Mark of the Vampire). The struggle between Ainsley and Tesla is as interesting as the back and forth between Van Helsing and Dracula, and while the resolution is largely out of their hands, there is at least one great scene showcasing their battle of wills.
It's certainly a better constructed film than I was expecting, with the opening section of the film being a surprising prologue / flashback designed to set the stakes before we're even aware that Return of the Vampire is going to leap to (roughly) present day. Like Mark of the Vampire, it openly acknowledges the difficulty for authorities (in this case, Scotland Yard) to believe such a fantastic story, but as Fleet and his detectives discover, the evidence is hard to ignore, even when it points to werewolves and vampires.
This trifecta proves to me that classic horror films have as much of a place in Horror Fest as the more contemporary fare, and in the future I resolve to include more of it for everybody to see. But for now, it's time to close out with a very recent film indeed, The Cabin in the Woods.