In the year 1918, an English family is being terrorized by a vampire, one whose werewolf servant has been keeping tabs on his master's latest victim and informs him where she is once he awakens from his tomb one night in a fog-shrouded cemetery. At the Ainsley Sanitarium, Lady Jane Ainsley has called in Oxford professor Walter Saunders to help her determine the cause of the young woman's very anemic condition, which she cannot determine. After the woman dies from shock upon reliving her attack in her mind, Saunders, having noticed two tiny marks on her neck, reads up on vampires from a book written by an 18th century vampire expert, Armand Tesla. The next morning, Saunders tells Lady Jane of his theory, which she is initially incredulous about until Saunders' young granddaughter, Nikki, is found with the same type of marks on her own neck the next morning. Telling her how a vampire must be killed, Lady Jane and Prof. Saunders search the abandoned cemetery for his coffin and find it in a crypt there. Saunders drives a metal spike through his heart, just as the werewolf arrives and, unable to stop them from killing his master, is returned to his human state. Over twenty years later, it is now the early 40's and Prof. Saunders has recently died in a plane crash. His manuscript detailing the events of the encounter was found amid his effects and, due to her involvement, Lady Jane is informed by the disbelieving Scotland Yard inspector Sir Frederick Fleet that they must investigate and that if they find the body with the stake in its chest, she will be tried for murder. Lady Jane, however, isn't worried, knowing that the body of the vampire, who was none other than Armand Tesla himself, will not have decomposed if the police find it. That night, however, the cemetery is hit by a bomb dropped during a German air-raid, and when two men assigned to rebury the disturbed coffins and bodies come across Tesla, they remove the stake before burying him again. Later, Lady Jane sends Andreas, the man who was once Tesla's werewolf servant but is now rehabilitated and works as her assistant, to meet up with Dr. Hugo Bruckner, a scientist who has recently escaped a German concentration camp, and bring him to the sanitarium to work with her. On his way, Andreas runs into the now resurrected Tesla and becomes his slave again. Back in werewolf form, Andreas murders Buckner and gives his effects to Tesla so he can take his place in order to exact his revenge on Lady Jane, which he plans to do so through the now grown Nikki Saunders, who is engaged to marry her son, John.
If this movie is known for anything, it's for Bela Lugosi more or less playing Dracula again, and the film's very title, in addition to aptly describing the plot, alludes to it as well. Really, the only thing that's different is the changing of the character's name to Armand Tesla in order to avoid copyright lawsuits with Universal, seeing as how the image of their Dracula is Lugosi; other than that, Tesla functions in much the same way as Dracula did in the original 1931 film. Like most vampires, he sleeps in his coffin during the day and at night, he either mingles with high society under the alias of Dr. Hugo Bruckner, coming across as charming and fascinating, or searches for victims, specifically those related to Lady Jane Ainsley. This agenda of his makes Tesla feel much more malicious than Dracula. Dracula, in spite of how severely creepy he was, seemed to prey upon the living for their blood and turn others into vampires simply because that was just his function, and he was even a little bit sympathetic in how he once lamented, "To die, to be really dead, that must be glorious... There are far worst things waiting man than death." The only time he seemed truly malevolent was when he told Prof. Van Helsing of how he intended to turn Mina into a vampire like him by infusing his blood with hers. Tesla, on other hand, is truly cruel and sadistic in that he intends to get his revenge on Lady Jane by going through the people close to her: seducing Prof. Saunders' granddaughter, Nikki, planning to turn her into a vampire and have her kill Lady Jane's son, John, with whom she is engaged. This seems like a very unbalanced retribution, given how it was Saunders who figured out that what was going on in 1918 was the work of a vampire (from his own book on the subject, no less), tracked down his resting place, and put a metal spike through his heart, whereas Lady Jane merely assisted him. Tesla claims that his curse is what caused the plane crash that killed Saunders before the real story begins but, if that's true, it's odd that he would see to it that he died in such a quick way and then save the longest and agonizing part of his vengeance for his assistant. His interest in making Nikki his own also shows how truly evil he is, not just because he plans to corrupt Saunders' granddaughter but because he marked her back in 1918 when she was just a little girl! Not even Dracula did something that hideous. And finally, Tesla's treatment of Andreas, his faithful servant, at the end after he's been seriously injured by a bullet from Sir Frederick Fleet is loathsome, too, as he tells him that his usefulness has ended, since he now has Nikki, and forces him over in a corner where he is to stay until he dies. Yeah, Dracula may have killed Renfield, who begged for his life, but at least he did it because he knew he'd betrayed him. Andreas was loyal as you could be towards Tesla and he just tossed him aside like nothing, going back on his promise to give him eternal life.
Speaking of Andreas (Matt Willis), he's the other part of this movie that it's most well-known for, not only for the fact that he's a werewolf, with a fairly distinctive makeup design courtesy of Columbia's head artist, Clay Campbell (not a bad-looking werewolf, I must say), but also because he's a very unique one. Rather than being a slavering, mindless beast, Andreas is intelligent, able to talk, and his condition is a direct result of Armand Tesla's corruption rather than a curse that's brought about by the full moon. Most significantly, he's Tesla's devoted servant, keeping him up to date on what's been going on while he's been sleeping during the day and aiding him in achieving his revenge on Lady Jane Ainsley by doing things such as killing Dr. Bruckner, bringing Tesla his effects so he can impersonate him, and helping him to seduce Nikki by stealing Prof. Saunders' transcript on Tesla's case and leaving it in her bedroom for her to find, as well as opening a pane glass door so she can hear his voice. He also takes sheer delight in pleasing his master, enthusiastically asking him how he will exact his revenge on Lady Jane and chuckling when he tells Tesla how easily he killed Bruckner and his bodyguard. However, in spite of this, Andreas is actually the most sympathetic character in the entire film. After Prof. Saunders and Lady Jane stake Tesla through the heart in 1918, which turns Andreas back to his human form and frees him from his control, they help rehabilitate him and cleanse him completely of his corruption. During the meat of the story, he works as Lady Jane's assistant at her clinic, and is quite shaken when he overhears her and John talking about the police's plans to open Tesla's coffin, fearing that he'll return (a fear that's plagued him for years, as you find out near the end of the movie). Right after he confesses his fears to Lady Jane, poor Andreas runs into Tesla in the woods and, despite his insisting, "You have no power over me. That was ended many years ago. I'm no longer your slave! Dr. Ainsley has cleansed me of all the evil you forced upon me. You can't bring it back! You can't! I won't let you! I won't!", he's unable to resist Tesla's power and becomes his slave again, now using his job as Lady Jane's assistant to help his master in exacting his revenge. As Lady Jane herself later laments, it's sad to see Andreas succumb to the evil again, especially in the scene where he raves about how they'll never defeat Tesla, but his redemption begins when, after taking a bullet, he's told by his master that he has no use for him and crawls over into a corner, waiting to die. However, while sitting there, he finds a small crucifix and, remembering what Lady Jane told him when he was first cleansed, reverts back to his human form and stops Tesla from putting Nikki into a coffin by using the crucifix. He tells the now defenseless vampire that he plans to destroy him, and despite being temporarily thwarted by a bomb dropped during another German air-raid, Andreas eventually manages to drag Tesla out into the sunlight and drive a metal spike through his heart, killing him once and for all before dying himself.
Lady Jane Ainsley (Frieda Inescort) is a rarity in a horror film of this time: a female lead character who is also the monster's main adversary. At the beginning of the film, when she calls in Prof. Saunders to help her with the woman who was attacked by Armand Tesla, she's initially skeptical when he tells her that he believes the attack was committed by a vampire, as anyone would be, but when she sees and experiences enough, she becomes a complete believer. In spite of Sir Frederick Fleet's constant disbelief in the story told in Saunders' manuscript on the case, Lady Jane remains confident in what she saw and feels that Fleet will believe her too when he finds that Tesla's body hasn't decomposed over the years. Of course, the case is closed when Tesla's grave is destroyed by the bomb during the air-raid but Lady Jane only becomes concerned when she discovers that the drawer where she hid Saunders' manuscript had been forced open and when Nikki is discovered unconscious with bite marks on her neck. And when she learns that the two grave-diggers removed the spike from Tesla's corpse, she knows that he's returned to life and, from then on, becomes like a female Van Helsing and tries to protect Nikki and her son, John, from the vampire's wrath. She's also saddened to learn that Andreas has become Tesla's slave again but remains convinced that there is still good within him and that it can never be driven out completely. Her first actual confrontation with Tesla, whose true identity she begins to suspect when Fleet tells her that the man impersonating Dr. Bruckner doesn't fit his physical condition, occurs at her house one night while she's playing the organ. Tesla makes his plans to turn both Nikki and John into vampires known but Lady Jane shows that she knows what to do about him when she reveals the hidden image of a cross on the organ, forcing him to vanish. Not knowing where Tesla is, Lady Jane is forced to follow Nikki when she walks out of the house in a trance but, while she and Fleet do find the cemetery and church he's hiding in, air raid spoils their chance, although Fleet does manage to shoot Andreas. Ultimately, it's Andreas who becomes the real hero when he redeems himself and destroys Tesla, with Lady Jane hoping at the end that he's finally found peace.
And, as with many horror films made around this time, you've got to have some comic relief characters, which come in the form of two grave diggers who are hired to rebury the corpses in the cemetery that are displaced by a German air raid. These two guys (Billy Brevan and Harold De Becker) are your typical jittery, Cockney-accented characters who are forced to do a rather morbid job that they'd rather not have any part of and have some fairly funny lines, such as, "Blimey, look at this place. It's getting so it ain't even safe to be dead," and, when one gasps at the sight of a skull on the ground, saying, "I ain't going to do nothing with him," his buddy teases him by saluting and saying, "The king expects every man to do his duty!" They are significant to the story, though, in that they're the ones who remove the spike from Armand Tesla's chest when they find his dislodged body. They have a good reason for it, in that they think the spike is a piece from shrapnel from the bomb and, for decency, remove it from him before reburying him. Naturally, they're freaked out when they hear Tesla moan once the spike is removed and, instead of trying to figure out which grave is his, they just bury him in a hole in the ground. Later on, they tell Lady Jane of what happened, making her realize that Tesla has been resurrected, and points out to one of them that the ring he found and is now wearing was his ring, prompting him to quickly take it off and give it back to her.
In that documentary on The Howling that I mentioned earlier, Joe Dante comments on how the lore and rules for werewolves change from movie to movie, often depending on the budget they had, and that certainly qualifies for this film, which plays around significantly with the accepted rules of both werewolves and vampires. Some of the accepted vampire lore remains true, in that Armand Tesla is frightened of crosses (which makes me wonder why in the hell he chose an abandoned church as his new hiding place), his image can't be reflected in mirrors (his actual body rather than his entire form), he's very seductive and can slowly turn other people into vampires over time (his corruption of Nikki is very similar to what Dracula does to Mina in the original film), he's vulnerable to sunlight, and can also be put out of commission by a stake through the heart. However, it seems like said stake, which Prof. Saunders specifies must be a metal spike, only works as long as it remains there and doesn't actually kill the vampire. It's the sun that destroys Tesla for good at the end, with Andreas' staking him seemingly making him unable to move and completely helpless against it. Although, it makes you wonder why it didn't work when those two gravediggers found his dislodged body in the middle of the day. Maybe it's because it was an overcast day (I wonder if that's where Stephen Sommers got the idea for that village attack scene in Van Helsing?) Going back to the mirror thing, do vampires genuinely hate them, as Dracula himself said in the original film after he smacked one out of Prof. Van Helsing's hand? Why was it necessary for Tesla to turn away all of the mirrors in the hotel room he uses as part of his cover as Dr. Bruckner? Also, Tesla never becomes a bat but he is able to vanish within an instant, like in a moment when one of Sir Frederick Fleet's men follows him out the door of the hotel, only to find no trace of him and to learn that the man outside never saw him come out, and when he disappears in a flash of light and smoke when Lady Jane shows him a cross. Exactly how Tesla became a vampire is never made clear, with Lady Jane saying only that his obsessed interest in the subject led to him becoming one when he died. So, I guess the lesson is not to become too interested in vampires unless you want to become one after you die.
If you want a movie that's dripping with classic horror architecture and visuals, you need look no further than The Return of the Vampire, as there are many scenes that take place in old abandoned cemeteries late at night (one particularly classic shot is of Armand Tesla's hand breaking through the earth when he's first resurrected), dark, dank crypts and tombs, dimly-lit rooms with lots of shadows, and eerie, fog-shrouded woods. Speaking of fog, like James Rolfe said, this movie is so full of it that there's even a scene where its covering the floor of a room in a house! That fog could probably be explained by being described as being of supernatural origin, thanks to the presence of Tesla in that scene but still, you see that and you can't help but think that it's a little bit of overkill. Doesn't matter, though, as it's a very nice-looking movie, although some people who were part of it didn't appear to appreciate it. Nina Foch appears very briefly at the beginning of the Universal Horror documentary (I'd ask why, given how this is a Columbia movie and is never even talked about in the bulk of the film, but it talks about King Kong for a little bit, which was RKO, so whatever) and she says, "I have to admit I don't admire horror films. I think they're tacky. I hate the art direction. Horror films just don't look right to me." Different strokes for different folks, I guess, but I don't see how you couldn't love the way these types of movies look and feel.
There aren't a lot of special effects to speak of, as most of the things that happen in this movie are either implied or happen offscreen altogether and what are here are pretty old-fashioned, particularly Andreas' transforming back and forth between his human form and into a werewolf which, as you'd expect, is done in the old tradition of lap-dissolves with different layers of makeup. The image of Tesla being destroyed by the sun, however, is interesting in that it's possibility the first onscreen "death" of a vampire since Count Orlock disappeared into nothingness at the end of Nosferatu and also because it's quite graphic for the time. Instead of shriveling up, as Prof. Saunders said he would, Tesla instead gradually melts, leading to a shot of his skull partially revealed underneath gobs of melted flesh at the end. It looks like they accomplished it by melting a wax bust of Bela Lugosi and it looks pretty good, especially in how much it does look like the actor. You don't see that very often in horror films made around this time.
One aspect of the movie that I have no comment on at all is the music score, composed by Mario C. Tedesco, who only actually scored the music for this one horror film but who did a lot of stock music that ended up in films like Zombies of Mora Tau, The Giant Claw, The Werewolf, Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, 20 Million Miles to Earth, and numerous other horror and science fiction films of the 40's and 50's. I don't remember a damn thing about the music for this movie, which was as generic and forgettable as you could get and which I can only describe as typical 40's horror film music. While the movie may not be a major classic, the music is the one part of it where I can safely it's the least effective.