Dracula has turned up in a variety of locations over the years, but what about a small town in California? It happened in The Return of Dracula, an entertaining low budget film released in 1958. In order to elude a group of vampire hunters in Europe, the legendary fiend kills an artist named Bellac Gordal, and assumes his identity. Escaping to the United States, he insinuates himself with Bellac’s family, who live in Carleton, California, and were expecting a visit by him. The family consists of Bellac’s cousin, Cora, a widow who hasn’t seen him since they were younger, and her two children; Rachel, a teenager who wants to be an artist/designer, and her younger brother, Mickey. Rachel is particularly charmed and dazzled by Bellac's tales of his life in Europe, much to the consternation of her boyfriend, Tim, who's pretty sure there is something odd about their visitor.
|Francis Lederer lurks as Norma Eberhardt sleeps|
Bellac seems to have some strange habits, too; he sleeps all day, keeps his room locked, and only comes out at night. In reality, he’s got a coffin stashed in an abandoned mine shaft outside of town, and that’s where he’s spending the daylight hours. Of course, any self-respecting vampire needs his sustenance, so Bellac/Dracula slakes his thirst with the family cat, then hunts for bigger game. He feeds on Jenny, a young blind girl who lives at the parish house, which is run by the kindly Reverend Whitfield. Rachel volunteers there, and is distressed to see her friend’s health failing. No one can explain her strange condition. She tells Rachel she’s having eerie dreams and dark visions of her death. Jenny is transformed into a vampire by Bellac.
Rachel (Norma Eberhardt) and her family continue to be intrigued by Bellac, despite his eccentric behavior. That's not good, because he decides to make Rachel's his bride. He wants her to spend eternity with him. Meanwhile, the vampire hunters, posing as immigration agents, have tracked Dracula to Carleton, and try to locate his hiding place. Bellac discovers their presence, and dispatches Jenny to take care of them. Will Bellac’s true nature be revealed? Will Jenny be freed from her vampiric curse, and find eternal peace? Can Tim keep Rachel from becoming Bellac’s next victim? The Return of Dracula is an enjoyable B-movie that is a slightly different spin on the story of the world’s most famous vampire. While the movie is most definitely a low budget affair, it does have some interesting moments. In fact, Rachel’s fascination with her cousin is a neat parallel to a similar situation in the Hitchcock classic Shadow of a Doubt, where another young woman's charming uncle is later revealed to be a notorious killer.
Francis Lederer does a good job in the role of Bellac/Dracula, radiating old world charm, touched up with an undercurrent of quiet menace. It’s not as showy or florid as the performances of actors like Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee or Frank Langella, but it perfectly suits the film’s understated style. Lederer actually reprised the role in an episode of Night Gallery in 1971. The rest of the cast is solid; you may recognize character actor Gage Clark, who plays Reverend Whitfield. Clark also appeared in films such as The Bad Seed and The Absent Minded Professor, as well as TV series like Maverick and The Twilight Zone. The effective cinematography by Jack McKenzie belies the black and white film’s low budget origins, and includes the use of a brief (and surprising) splash of color during a key sequence near the climax. While the film isn’t quite up to the standards of classics like the 1931 Lugosi version or Lee’s 1958 Horror of Dracula, The Return of Dracula is worth a look for B-movie fans, and those with a particular taste for vampire tales. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ULuL07ptuY.