10/09/2017 – Modernized: The Return of Dracula (1958)
Directed by Paul Landres
As the consistent stream of remakes since the beginning of cinema has proven, there will always be a market for new versions of classic tales. But, just redoing a film over and over again can make them all look samey. So what is an enterprising studio to do to get people interested in their new adaptation? The phrase “It’s [famous property] but in [insert new setting, time, genre, whatever]” is easy to parody and often use as an easy way to mock uncreative Hollywood venture but it isn’t always a bad thing (Star Trek being one famous example). The variation we are going to be looking at this time though is where that second blank is filled with “the present day”. Now this is not an exclusively horror thing as all those modernized Shakespeare adaptations (10 Things I Hate About You, Romeo Plus Juliet, etc.), Cruel Intentions, and more can attest to, but horror has a small fondness for another variation of it.
The Universal monster films made their name first with adaptations of classic literature (such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera) which retained the typically 19th century (though occasionally earlier) setting of the original written works. That setting gave a very distinctive feel to their films and as I talked about last year, as these were the most prominent horror works for decades, this setting almost came to define horror. The two most famous titles from them (Dracula and Frankenstein) were also technically modernized but done so primarily out of desire to save money unlike later films (though considering their low budget roots I doubt that motivation was far from their minds) even though on the surface they generally still appear to be set in the 19th century. Therefore, they can consider themselves some of the modernized remakes doing so to Nosferatu and a number of Frankenstein adaptations (one of which, Life Without Soul was also modernized).
When Hammer Studios started to remake all the classic Universal horror films, they maintained that the original work’s time period and setting but in color.AIP on the other hand took a different route. Foreshadowing all those teen focused Shakespeare and classic literature reimaginings of the 90s and 00s, they transplanted the stories on to modern day teens to make it more relatable. It was for them a huge success and I Was a Teenage Werewolf begat Blood of Dracula (of only in name relation to the original), I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, and How to Make a Monster (which functioned as both a werewolf and Frankenstein take). Hammer too would join the party with Dracula A.D. 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula being given a contemporary setting much the way the Universal titles were. At the same time the blacksploitation title of Blacula (as well as its sequel, Blackenstein, and Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde) was doing the same while also changing the background of the title character.
While these modernizations aren’t as common as one might think (since I’m not referring to a simple remake such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers which takes a then contemporaneous story and updates the setting understandably to the then present) they are extremely varied in tone. They range from the low budget shlock of Dracula vs. Frankenstein, the creative takes on the material such as Phantom of the Paradise, Frankenweenie, Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde that change more than just time, TV adaptations such as The Munsters, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Buffy vs. Dracula”, and Jekyll, romantic horror titles such as To Die For and Warm Bodies (the original not even being horror), in addition to the straight up modern horror versions in The Phantom of the Opera (1989), Hollow Man, Dracula 2000 (and its sequels). These adaptations are all over the place in faithfulness, tone, and budget but even as a defender of the art of the remake they have one thing in relative common; quality. Sure there is no comparing the dreck in there to the simply mediocre and the short version of Frankenweenie is actually good and Jekyll is supposed to be, (I also can’t speak to the quality of Phantom of the Paradise but I have made my DePalma opinions very vocal in the past), but even those two TV adaptations (which will surely attract defenders who are wrong) just come across as pale versions of what came before. The creativity really does seem to stop when they think they have come up with something completely novel. The few successes over the years make it clear that it is possible, just hard as hell.
The Return of Dracula was released around the time AIP was doing its thing and to capitalize on the release of Hammer’s Blood of Dracula. Dracula has been transported to 1950s California and played this time out by Francis Lederer. I’ll admit that based on the description I expected something a bit silly but the film maintains a pretty serious tone. It’s also incredibly standard stuff with the whole fear of crosses, sleeping in a coffin, avoidance of light, the ability to transfix women, and the ability to be defeated by driving a stake through the vampire’s heart. It’s black and white cinematography (aside from one scene SPOILERS where a stake is driven through a woman’s heart and some bright, strange colored blood comes out) END OF SPOILERS creates almost a transitional feel between the classics of the 30s and 40s and the low budget crap of the 50s that companies like AIP relished in.
Dracula escapes to the US to pose as one of his victims, a painter, to start a new life hiding with the cousin and her three kids of the victim. Lucky for him, she hasn’t seen him in many years and lives in a small town complete with a nearby cave where he can keep his coffin (for some reason vampires in coffins seem to create dry ice in this movie). He’s also able to just appear out of nowhere with it implied that he needs blood to maintain his form. The older daughter is immediately transfixed by him and throughout the movie I was torn between thinking she was one of the best parts acting wise or the worst.
He kills a cat and later murders a local girl, turning her into a vampire for purposes that are never really made clear and the story is really where the film falls down. It can’t decide if he’s making some new cult (with apparently one member) or if he is trying to hide out. Dracula is investigated by immigration and is suspected by a man who knows of him and his weaknesses, a Van Helsing in all but name but the film really could have done with some interaction between two. SPOILERS Instead Dracula’s killed off by the daughter after his focus is taken away when the vampire he is created is killed and is chased to by a cross onto some conveniently placed wooden stakes at the bottom of a hole in the cave. Oddly his blood is made of barbecue sauce and not that weird colored stuff his disciple oozes which creates an uncomfortable feeling that they are playing the female’s death more for exploitation. END OF SPOILERS
The film is basically gore free aside from the two staking scenes of widely varying quality. It’s clearly a low budget title but generally isn’t hurt too much by it. He is pretty clearly out at daytime despite his aversion since well, since shooting at night is expensive and the film is stingy with the special effects but I’d almost argue the latter is an advantage since they know to just keep it off the screen instead of showing something laughable. I’m not sure I’d call it a good film and it sure as hell isn’t very original but it’s watchable.
Fun fact though, the director Paul Landres took over as director of the film Last of the Wild Horses mid-production. That film would later be featured in Season 6 of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and it is indeed terrible.
Next up: We take a look at a genre that is a ton of fun if not really for the reason the creator intended. It’s time to take a look at Schlock and one of the most notable purveyors of this “craft”, Albert Pyun and one of his early title in Vicious Lips.