The other day, in honor of the holiday, I watched The Return of the Vampire (1944), the last of the classic vampire films inspired by Universal Horror. The film itself was a knockoff, produced by Columbia Pictures but very clearly intended as a sequel to Universal’s Dracula. What makes the film fascinating is the way Columbia chose to skirt copyright law by changing the Dracula character. I wrote about this in my book, Knowing Fear (2008):
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.
I think it’s important for the purposes of the discussion we’ve had on this blog vis-à-vis science and faith to point out that neither Lady Jane nor Armand Tesla is a pure scientist. Tesla is, of course, a reanimated corpse whose “science” has unleashed evil magical powers. But Lady Jane retreats from science, too, in the face of the supernatural. She explains to Tesla that there is one force still greater than science—and it is, of course, “faith.” A cross makes the vampire recoil, and eventually leads to his downfall. This is entirely in keeping with Dracula, but it is jarring in the way that it undercuts nearly everything else in the film, a sop to traditional piety.
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.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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