By Steve D. Stones
In the same year that Columbia Pictures cast Bela Lugosi as a vampire in The Return of The Vampire, Universal Studios cast the stocky, mid-western actor Lon Chaney Jr in Son of Dracula (1943). Chaney's Dracula lacks the old world charm and mannerisms that made Lugosi so famous in the role.
By 1943, Lugosi's star power had faded. Universal Studios would not allow Columbia Pictures to use the name Dracula, so Lugosi's character was named Armand Tesla in The Return of The Vampire.
Armand Tesla is a 200 year old Hungarian vampire who roams the London countryside in 1918 with his werewolf sidekick Andreas (Matt Willis). After Tesla feeds on the necks of young victims from the village, Lady Jane Ainsley (Frieda Inescort) and Professor Walter Saunders (Gilbert Emery) find Tesla's resting spot and drive a stake through his heart while he is sleeping in his coffin.
Two decades later, a bombing raid during World War II unearths Tesla's grave. Two grave diggers walking through the graveyard notice the stake in Tesla's chest and mistaken it for a bomb splint. They remove the stake from Tesla's chest. Little do they know what they have unleashed. Tesla returns to life.
Like the original Dracula (1931), Tesla becomes obsessed with a beautiful, young blond woman. Nicki, played by Nina Foch, is the ingenue who falls under Tesla's spell. Nicki was bitten in the neck by Tesla in 1918 when she was just a little girl. Tesla returns to seek revenge on Lady Jane for driving a stake through his heart. Professor Saunders dies in a plane crash, which is a curse placed on him by Tesla.
Lady Jane employs Andreas in her research lab as an assistant. Little does Lady Jane know that Andreas has teamed up with Tesla and once again becomes a werewolf. With the help of Andreas, Tesla takes on the identity of a Dr. Hugo Bruckner, a respected scientist.
The graveyard sequences in The Return of The Vampire give the impression that the film is a Universal Studios picture. Lugosi and Andreas walk through a fog-covered ground with twisted trees and eroded tombstones, which look similar to the graveyard scenes in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). Lugosi covering his face with his cape in an opening scene as he walks through the graveyard looks like a sequence that Ed Wood could have easily used in Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959).
The film ends with another bombing raid striking the graveyard, but this time the raid kills Tesla. Andreas is freed of his werewolf curse and returns to normal. Tesla melts into a hot glob of wax. The police commissioner of Scotland Yard, arriving on the scene, looks at the audience and asks if they believe in vampires.
After Dracula in 1931, Lugosi was type-cast to a career of low-budget, bottom of the barrel productions with studios such as Monogram and PRC. Despite his poor salary on many of these films, Lugosi always gave an amazing performance, and was always a true professional in all his work. No actor plays a vampire with as much charm and effectiveness as the great Bela Lugosi.