First things first: Yes, I am aware that there is a new episode of Ancient Aliens tonight, but since it’s Halloween, I will not be spending the evening reviewing the show. I have better things to do. I will record the episode and post a review sometime tomorrow.
Since it’s Halloween I thought it might be a good time to remind everyone that I have some great books available, including eBooks that are ready for instant download right now. May I recommend my short eBook A Brief History of Zombies for your Halloween enjoyment? The book collects some of my best blog posts on zombies, along with some original content to tie together an analysis that runs from the Sumerians to The Walking Dead.
Return of the Vampire (1944), the last of these early vampire films, found Bela Lugosi playing a vampire once again. In 1918, a family is tormented by a vampire, who holds sway over a servant he has turned into a werewolf. The vampire is Dr. Armand Tesla, who was once an eighteenth century scientist but whose mastery of science led him to become an undead vampire. Tesla is dispatched at the end of the Great War, but Nazi bombings during the Blitz uncover his grave, which cemetery workers discover, removing the iron stake that killed him and restoring him to life. Tesla re-enslaves his werewolf and uses his powers to stalk the family of Lady Jane Ainsley (Frieda Inescourt), who along with her now-dead mentor put him down last time. Lady Jane is a scientist of the highest caliber, but even her reputation fails to convince a skeptical Scotland Yard that Tesla is a vampire; and the police want to charge Ainsley with Tesla’s 1918 murder, if they can find the body.
The vampire intends to destroy Lady Jane’s family and then take over the world, and in an evocative scene, Tesla stands behind Lady Jane, who is playing an organ. He is framed in the doorway, shot so he appears between Lady Jane and the organ. She knows he is there but does not look at him. He speaks: “What a fool you are. With all your scientific knowledge you have achieved nothing. You are too late to stop what I have set out to do.” Indeed, it seems that this might be the case; but Lady Jane uses psychology to reason with the werewolf, whom she rescued from lycanthropy once before. When a Nazi bomb knocks out Tesla, the werewolf drags the body into the sunlight, where the vampire melts away, freeing him from Tesla’s control. In the end it is suggested that Tesla was not the vampire’s real name, implying he was actually the hideous Dracula. After all this, the Scotland Yard inspector still refuses to believe in the supernatural since no evidence remains: “You don’t believe in this vampire business, do you?” Then, turning to the camera, asks the audience, “And—do you people?” This undercuts the horror by breaking the fourth wall.
As Rick Worland explained, the film related in many ways to World War II anxieties, with the vampire as the German menace and the female scientist as a Rosie-the-Riveter stepping in for the absent male authority figures. The rarity of a female vampire hunter makes this film special, though the effect is undercut by the need for a male to destroy the vampire instead of Lady Jane.
It goes without saying that for Armand Tesla the writers borrowed his name from Nikola Tesla, who had died the previous year and therefore could no longer sue for libel or misappropriation of his name. Tesla and Bela Lugosi even bore a bit of a resemblance to one another, and Lugosi had played Tesla-like mad scientists in previous films, notably The Phantom Creeps (1939), probably his most Telsa-like role. In that serial, Lugosi’s made scientist Dr. Alex Zorka is responsible for a number of death-dealing contraptions similar to some of those rumored to have been on Tesla’s drawing board. The stock figure of the mad scientist predates Tesla, of course—it goes back at least to Dr. Faustus—but Tesla gave a special shape to the modern mad scientist. Tesla’s inventions, particularly the Tesla coil, formed the lab equipment for James Whale’s version of Frankenstein’s laboratory and forever defined what a scientist’s lair should look like. For the film Ken Strickfaden purposely modeled Frankenstein’s laboratory on Tesla’s! Tesla, in turn, admired Universal’s Carl Laemmle because both men had faced down Tesla’s hated enemy, Thomas Edison, who was not just an inventor like Tesla but an early film mogul like Laemmle.
It’s interesting to see the way fringe history’s favorite scientist cast so long a shadow over the horror genre and had been folded into the supernatural long before ancient astronaut theorists claimed him as one of their own.