The late 1950s serves as such a tricky time period in our nation’s pop culture. These are the years that conservative Western television shows dominated the screens at home while horror films of both high and low grade brought in the revenue on the big screen. It’s a decade that encapsulates a nation still trying to re-establish itself from the Depression. It’s the years Dwight Eisenhower approved the expansion of NASA and the launch of the space race. In Hollywood, it was a time of disruption, as actors and actresses had to often vouch for themselves as they stood trial under the Red Scare. Onscreen depictions of the 1950s now look picturesque and fairly quaint in terms of thematic material, but the lives of the teenage viewers who religiously began watching TV and movies in this age saw a world that was far from G-rated. No matter the genre or medium, many directors felt compelled to layer their conservative views on American living for the teenagers paying tickets to see their productions. One of the best examples comes from Paul Landres, a small-time TV director with stints on shows like The Lone Ranger and Bonanza, who created a horror film so chockful of messages for its teenage audience that looking back on it fifty-nine years after its release makes it seem like a PSA.
Landres’ The Return of Dracula (1958) opens in Transylvania, as Count Dracula has fled, narrowly missing a group of detectives trying to find him. He hops the train to the New World of America, where he murders a man named Bellac. Taking on Bellac’s identity, Dracula pulls off rooming with the Mayberry family in their home in Carleton, California, only to attempt to prey on its townspeople and create a new world of his own, filled with undead Americans.
But why even return to consider this film now? At the 77-minute run time, The Return of Dracula leaves the screen before the viewer has settled in. Its pacing is a bit slow, and having been released in the same year as Christopher Lee’s Horror of Dracula and Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows, The Return of Dracula feels quite tame. However, The Return of Dracula depicts a singular snapshot of American chaos - a terror is hiding in the same home where a family sleeps, eats and prays together. No one can pinpoint why the family starts experiencing turbulence and hateful attitudes, and no one realizes Bellac is Dracula until it’s almost too late. The film mirrors the nation’s worries for its young people and it attempts to show through Dracula what will really happen to teenagers if they choose pleasure over rational decisions, or stray away from traditional, American values. In the film, Dracula becomes a tempter to three impressionable teenagers: Rachel Mayberry (Bellac’s cousin), Jennie (a blind girl bedridden in a Parish) and Tim (Rachel’s sex-crazed boyfriend).
Although Francis Lederer was 59 years old when he played Dracula (and he reportedly loved every moment of it, valuing the part as one of his favorite roles of his career), Lederer’s portrayal of Dracula is a man in a dark, well-fitting suit. The lines on his face show years of wear and the stereotypical fangs have been removed. He doesn’t speak too much, but smiles often. Believing Dracula to be Bellac, Rachel (played by Norma Eberhardt) is enamored by him. Bellac is a true mystery to her. Even before actually meeting him, Rachel has already put Bellac on a pedestal. She tells her mother, Cora, "A man like that [is] a part of us, a man who has been all over the world, one who has seen everything and done everything. I can’t believe it’s happening to me."
Rachel’s choice to descent into rebellion or keep to her conservative upbringing is the center of The Return of Dracula. And although Rachel is Dracula’s first choice, the Count feeds off one other person. Jennie Blake (Virginia Vincent) is a teenager Rachel reads to at the Parish, and Jennie becomes Dracula’s first victim in Carleton. Although Jennie is close to Rachel’s age, Rachel and her mother refer to Jennie as a young girl. From the start, Jennie is stunted by those around her and is treated like a child. Dracula sees Jennie’s pain and comes through her window to offer her freedom. He commands her through the darkness, "I can free your soul, Jennie. I can take you from the blackness into the light. Look at me, Jennie. Can you see me now?" For the first time, someone has promised Jennie healing. In the twilight hour, Jennie chooses Bellac’s darkness over the light of the Christian hospital, thus shirking the conservative values of the 1950s and looking for fulfillment elsewhere. Dracula redeems Jennie because under his power, she can see. Like Tom Holland will again demonstrate in his epic Fright Night, as Jerry Dandridge turns Evil Ed into a vampire, Jennie becomes Dracula’s pawn, posing as a white wolf to do Dracula’s bidding. And under his power he can give her the desires she craves, such as the ability to walk and the ability to finally be on her own. Her independence is conditional, however, since she can only act when Bellac is commanding her. Jennie is a pitiful character, who must meet her true death at the end of the film. She is stabbed to death and as the blood gushes an artificial bright red, the only color in this black and white film, Jennie’s death is solidified. She is punished for choosing evil pleasure, although she was granted what she wanted all along.
As Jennie is only a minor character in the film, Rachel’s purity stays in flux as Dracula only tempts her further and further away from those conservative values she grew up with. The real question as to whether Rachel will choose virtue over pleasure is shown as Bellac attempts to seduce Rachel as she falls asleep. She falls asleep reading her bible and, as she slumbers, Bellac reveals himself, controlling Rachel as she dozes in and out. He commands, "The cross is my enemy, Rachel, take it off. Take off the cross, Rachel, so we can speak." Rachel drowsily listens to him as Bellac assumes the role of a powerful, demonic dark force, insisting to Rachel, "There is only one real reality, Rachel, and that is death. I bring you death, a living death." He promises her an eternal life in death, and as Rachel opens her eyes, a type of sexual encounter happens between the two characters. Dracula stands over Rachel, who is lying down, looking up at him. She chooses to rip off of her cross. The sexual tension builds as Dracula keeps asking her, "Are you afraid?" Her response is always a small, "No," and with every response, Dracula’s words intensify and again he asks, "Are you afraid?" The music builds and before an orgasm is even reached, Rachel is woken up by her brother Mikey dressed in a Halloween mask, causing her to question if the sensation she felt was only in her fantasies.
In the final climax, as Dracula attempts to gain Rachel’s soul for the last time, he chooses reason over pleasure. "Only this casing, this clumsy flesh stands between you and me," he says to her. As Rachel breaks free from Dracula’s hypnotic grip, Tim (Ray Stricklyn) comes to her rescue. But even here Dracula attempts to seduce Rachel’s jock boyfriend. He argues calmly, "We must combine our strengths for her good… Our destiny must be fulfilled here. We three are the only ones to survive this dying world." It's clear by his proposition that Dracula has no preference in gender for his victims. Out of the three targets in the film, Tim is the only character who clearly wants to give into Dracula’s proposal, repeatedly dropping the cross he holds as Dracula inches closer to them. In these final moments, Tim gains an ounce of courage. Gearing up to run toward Dracula, Dracula backs away from him and haphazardly falls into a pit, speared by an upright wooden stake. Tim has vanquished temptation, and now he and Rachel will choose a life of good.
The Return of Dracula is a film that deserves a viewing, even if it's never been one of the more popular entries in the Dracula oeuvre. What conservative filmmaker Landres attempted to do was subvert the Dracula trope to explain the dangers of teenage sexuality and decisions. What Landres did not realize, however, is that two years from the film’s release date, the first birth control pill would go on the market and help spark the sexual revolution of the sixties. Further, Hitchcock would once again define post-modern horror, as Psycho would arrive in theaters, playing even deeper into the tropes of sexual deviance and terror that The Return of Dracula did not dare attempt. This leaves The Return of Dracula frozen in the 1950s as a low-budget film that only dared to be a great horror movie.