It’s tough being a vampire in the suburbs. I gleaned this bit of insight after seeing two 1950s American movies about that very subject: The Vampire of 1957 and The Return of Dracula of 1958. Both films had the same director and screenwriter, Paul Landres and Pat Fielder respectively, so we’re working a suburban theme here. Oh, the conformity, the sterility, the empty angst of it all. Well, no, not quite. The films are not critiquing Cheeveresque horrors via a well-used horror trope; they’re contrasting new suburban niceness with creaky Old-World terrors. Clean, orderly living the 20th–century American way versus murky doings from the primeval past. Oh the dread, the darkness, the slimy dankness of it all—previously, that is. Now that we’ve got central heating, split levels, and PTA meetings, who needs Transylvania?
Think about it: Vampire are usually found in moldering European locales, prowling fog-shrouded castles with mountains and moors serving as backdrop. If they do decide to tour the American landscape, they choose a corresponding habitat, such as the Louisiana bayou of 1943’s Son of Dracula (which I wrote about here), where Dracula fils lurks in a mist-drenched swamp and then takes up residence in an Old-World-style manse dripping with mildew and menace. My own take on such living spaces is that vampires must be remarkably resistant to rheumatism and damp, but I think the conclusion most viewers will draw is that vampires like atmosphere. Setting is important: darkness, shadows, haze, and that right touch of moonlight to start the wolves howling. Only in such gloomy environs can our bloodsucker—white-tied, dinner-jacketed, long-cloaked—look like a suavely frightening ghoul and not like that little plastic figure stuck on top of a wedding cake. We’ve got an image to maintain here.
But the two films I’ve seen place the vampire in sunlit American suburbs, where children ride bikes and teenagers cruise cars down spacious tree-lined streets, while moms bake blueberry pies in big clean kitchens. It’s happy and everyday and normal, at least by 1950s standards. Any sharp-toothed fellow slinking about in formal evening dress will unfortunately stand out. Sure, a vampire can wear blue jeans or a business suit, but that doesn’t fit the image. And the classic vampire image doesn’t mesh with small-town Americana. When you head in that direction you end up with The Munsters, which laughs at Old-World monsters fitting like corkscrewy Old-World pegs into the bright, shiny holes of American suburbia. Vampires, after all, are not known for their sense of humor. Which is why you won’t find Bela Lugosi palling around with the Hardy family (though that’s a movie I’d love to see).
And which may be why Landres and Fielder’s first horror film, The Vampire, isn’t about a proper vampire. Oh, he leaves bite marks on his victims’ throats, but he’s not one of the true undead. He’s instead a small-town doctor who’s accidentally ingested some pills that induce vampiric mania. The pills were the result of a scientist extracting a serum from the blood of bats—vampire bats, natch—as a means of researching “primitive instincts” and “regressing the brain.” Which means that every night at 11:00pm (why 11pm? Why not?), our pill-popping doc turns into a gross, hairy monster straight out of the Jukes family, and crawls past porches and driveways in search of blood. Another scientist scoffs at the idea of pills causing vampirism—“that doesn’t make you another Dracula”—but we in the audience know better. Vampire bats mean vampire blood and that means vampire docs. Logic as straight and simple as a suburban street. Or a vampire fang.
Basically The Vampire is a programmer to amuse suburban kids, its story strung around mild horror antics that combine Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I Was a Teenage Werewolf, and even Reefer Madness (the doc becomes addicted to the pills and goes cra-a-a-zy). The comfy, cozy elements of small-town life are featured: the doctor makes house calls, everyone knows everyone else’s business (a nosy old lady grumbles about the goings-on at the science lab), and not much roils the town’s placid existence (“guess you ain’t had no excitement since Abe Hibble axed his mother-in-law,” observes a mortuary attendant to the local cop). Aside from a nice red-herring bit with a creepy lab assistant who looks like an unholy cross between John Carradine and John Waters, the film goes through its already-seen paces with efficiency and no surprises. But a note of sadness does intrude: the protagonist is not an evil mad doctor, but a hapless victim of circumstance; everything goes wrong for him through no agency of his own. It ends, typically, with the hirsute fiend shot dead and, à la the dying Larry Talbot, reversing back into his usual neat, clean-shaven, small-town self. Ah, well. Suburbia rules.
If Landres and Fielder fudged the small-town vampire issue with The Vampire, the following year they apparently felt confident enough to go whole hog with the bloodsucker-in-the-suburbs plot, even to including the über-vampire himself, right in the title. The Return of Dracula stars the gauntly glamorous Francis Lederer (whose stark cheekbones seem to have been slashed into his flesh with sabers) as the title count (although he’s never addressed by that name). On the run in Europe from a staking party, he escapes by killing another man immigrating to America and assuming his identity, in what may be the first case of vampiric identity theft. Landres gives his film a shadowy noir look here, with Dracula awaiting his prey in a train carriage, crouched behind a newspaper like a badger skulking in its lair.
Dracula’s destination is sunny Carleton, CA, where, pretending to be the dead man, he’s greeted as Cousin Bellaq from the Old Country (an allusion to an earlier Dracula portrayer?). The family meeting him is suburban cliché: Tom Sawyerish Sonny fidgets when he’s told to keep still; teenage Sis dreams about excitement happening beyond town limits; and fussbudget Mom worries that her long-unseen cousin won’t enjoy American-style hospitality (“I hope he likes cheese sauce on asparagus,” she mutters). However, Cousin Bellaq doesn’t quite fit in. He won’t join the family for meals (no doubt missing some excellent cheese sauce), avoids visiting the local minister, disappears during the daytime, and is never seen without jacket and tie. Family members fret about how they can’t “reach” him, but Bellaq keeps to himself, explaining vaguely that “My life has been confined”—a statement which, considering the source, can be interpreted in various ways. Meanwhile, mysterious deaths are occurring in town with no explanation at all…
Surprisingly, Return posits suburban conformity as a real problem for its lead character. Bellaq/Dracula insists that he can’t be like everyone else: “You must accept me as I am,” he says; and, “If my behavior seems different, perhaps it is because it serves a higher purpose than to find acceptance in this dull and useless world.” Behind his perpetually smiling façade Lederer brings an unexpected bitterness, even pique to those lines: he’s the legendary Count Dracula, f’cryin’ out loud, but now he’s expected to attend parish dinners and Halloween parties and is asked to judge Sis’s costume designs. What’s next, coaching Little League? Life in Carleton is not quite the existence we envision for our undead aristocrat. The film’s most incongruous scene has the utter-suburban Mom and the utter-continental Count posed in front of Mom’s typical small-town home while Drac praises her domicile—“it’s charming,” he coos, “it has a feeling of the Old World”; although it looks about as old as last week’s Ikea purchase. Maybe Drac’s suffering a touch of homesickness here, viewing New-World pristineness through mist-covered Old-World eyes.
In hindsight, these 1950s Landres/Fielder B-style vampire movies, with their consciously low-budget trappings, their small-town settings, their tentative acknowledgements of then-current cultural issues (it’s implied that Bellaq is moving to America to escape Soviet-style aggression) look, oddly, both quaint and grim. Coming right after those jolly-Old-World let’s-all-grab-a-torch-and-party monster rallies from Universal, they’re like that prissy suburban neighbor, the one who always keeps his hedges trimmed and complains whenever you’re making noise because you’re having fun. And they simply couldn’t compete with the garish color and overstuffed sets (not to mention the overstuffed bosoms) of the 1960s Hammer output; it’s like Dorothy opening the door to Oz and deciding to hell with Kansas. Still, I suppose that, after careful cinematic analysis, comparisons with other films, study of critical essays, and long, late-night bullshit sessions with fellow fans, we can yet draw weighty conclusions from these films. You know, about the American 50s, B-movie horror, suburban culture, and vampires in general.
Tell you what: next time I see Coach Lugosi at the PTA meeting after a Little League game, I’ll ask him what he thinks.