Posted by David Kalat on October 27, 2012
By sheer coincidence, in one of those warpings of reality that make people believe in Fate or powers greater than themselves, I happened to see Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt for the very first time just a few days after seeing The Return of Dracula. And to quote Robert Frost, “that has made all the difference in the world.”
In order to tell this story for you, however, I’m going to reorganize it non-chronologically. So, for example, I’ll start in 1997 when my wife and I were privileged to meet Patricia Hitchcock at a film convention. Delighted at the opportunity to meet Hitchcock’s daughter, Julie started the conversation by saying that her personal favorite Hitchcock movie was Shadow of a Doubt. Patricia confirmed that of her father’s movies, that was the one he too most admired. But what about, y’know, the movies HItch didn’t make? Patricia leaned in conspiratorially and confided, “Well, to be honest, my father’s favorite movie of all was Benji.”
I honestly don’t know what to do with that.
Now, if someone tells you that their favorite movie is Shadow of a Doubt, that makes a lot of sense—it’s wound as tight as a piano string but still finds time to wallow in richly realized character nuance—and since we’re talking about characters written by Thornton Wilder, those details are glorious. It has the epic weight of a mythological struggle between good and evil, between loyalty to one’s own and justice to the world, between the weak and the strong—and yet is also a quiet family drama set in a sleepy small town.
Our two protagonists are the two Charlies—Teresa Wright is a moody teenage girl, doting on her namesake Uncle (Joseph Cotton) who graces the family with an extended visit. During his stay, the girl gradually comes to recognize that he is actually a serial killer who’s been Bluebearding his way through a litany of lonely widows whom he seduces, marries, and murders. Oops.
All righty. Time to switch gears and look at Return of Dracula—a low-budget horror film from United Artists made in 1958, roughly 16 years after Shadow of a Doubt. It had the misfortune to be released to theaters an eyeblink before Hammer’s vastly superior Horror of Dracula, and thereby consigned to almost instantaneous obscurity. But it lives on, as vampires and vampire movies tend to do, in part because it is a secret remake of Shadow of a Doubt.
There is no overt acknowledgment of the connection—Return of Dracula claims to be from an original screenplay by Pat Fielder and was directed by Paul Landres. It concerns a distant Hungarian cousin of a Midwestern American family popping by for an extended visit and forging a relationship with the family’s teenage daughter, who gradually comes to realize he is actually an undead vampire. Oops.
I oversell the parallels a bit—it’s not like Fielder simply took Thornton Wilder’s screenplay for Shadow of a Doubt and said, “Gee, I’m just gonna cross out ‘serial killer’ and write in ‘Dracula’ and we can start shooting on Monday.” Indeed, Fielder may even have believed he was writing an “original screenplay,” as he avers.
The 1950s were a boom time for gothic horror, and there was something of a glut of the stuff as studios in the US and the UK took to overproducing it for a teenage market. The problem with gothic horror is that all that gothic atmosphere is expensive to get right, and there are only so many variations on the underlying monster fables that one can do—which means that there is a built-in incentive, during glut years like the 1950s, to cheat a bit—to restage the gothic horror in a contemporary setting. The appeal is obvious: save on sets on costumes, and get an instant novelty effect. Here’s Dracula—in the modern day!
But as horror filmmakers continually prove to the recurring despair of horror fans, putting gothic monsters in modern day settings is a terrible idea that almost never works.
I say “almost” because there are exceptions (Ginger Snaps, if you’ve never seen it, is hands down the best werewolf movie of all, and set firmly in the present). Return of Dracula is one of those exceptions—it brings Dracula effectively to the then-present of 1958 suburbia. And it does so, consciously or not, but mimicking Shadow of a Doubt.
The setup of Hitchcock’s film doesn’t take much tweaking to change “serial killer” to “Dracula,” and was an already proven success. The dramatic contours of the story are already road-tested—so instead of having to think up some asinine explanation for how Dracula is in, let’s say, 1970 A.D., and what he wants there, Fielder and Landres can just get on with things. “All-American family realizes their cousin isn’t who he says he is—and, action!”
But here’s where it gets weird: the makers of Return of Dracula can’t just change “serial killer” into “Dracula” and call it a day—they have to change at least one other detail of the plot mechanics while they’re at it. It’s not possible to realize their cousin is Dracula, they have to realize their cousin has been replaced by Dracula.
This is a key point. Their actual cousin must by definition be a part of the family—he would have a mother and a father, maybe some siblings, a history with the family and a childhood. That’s what it means to be a cousin. He can’t fulfill this description and then also be a deathless ageless monster who drinks human blood. In fact, he’s exposed in this story precisely because being Dracula is conspicuously in conflict with being an ordinary person.
So… there was a real cousin, and Dracula took his place.
As we return our attention to Shadow of a Doubt now, we’re going to see something very odd. If you see Shadow of a Doubt first, like most people did and do and should, and then maybe stumble across Return of Dracula if at all sometime later, you may notice the similarity of the story and think, that’s cool. But if you see Return of Dracula first, as I did, and then encounter Shadow of a Doubt, there are a few moments that suddenly jump out at you in Hitchcock’s film—moments you most likely might otherwise not consider significant.
For example, when Uncle Charlie first gets off the train, his family doesn’t immediately recognize him. To some extent this is simply because, as a fugitive, he had been hiding on the train in the aspect of a deathly-ill invalid, and it takes him a moment to throw off this persona once he disembarks.
But there’s slightly more to it than that. Even after Charlie has reoriented his posture and been embraced, the family’s precocious younger daughter Ann says she still doesn’t really recognize him. It is meant as a clever joke—a play on the way that family reunions always find the adults saying such annoying things to the kids (“My how you’ve grown! I didn’t recognize you!”). Ann flips it around, a child saying it to the adult, an absurdity. But we do leave this scene with a lingering sensation of discomfort about whether Uncle Charlie is fitting in properly.
And that takes us to the immediately following scene, in which Uncle Charlie greets his sister with a weird theatrical display of remembering their childhood home. Emmy’s response is befuddlement—that’s not what she remembers when she thinks of him at all.
In cases of identity theft, what an imposter takes are the documents of a person’s life—their name, their address, the records of their past. Not their memories. And so here comes Uncle Charlie, invoking the names and addresses that an imposter could have gleaned from public records, but avoiding the more intimate points of contact that one would expect between a loving brother and sister.
And this is actually the point—as we know, Uncle Charlie is desperate and on the run, and this gambit of going home is a last ploy. He doesn’t genuinely feel those affectionate bonds to this family, that isn’t why he’s here. All he has are the superficial memories of names and places.
Charlie is ushered to his room—little Charlie’s room, vacated for her uncle’s comfort. He lingers over a family photo and stares at it, as if memorizing it, as eerie sci-fi music plays.
Which is instantly followed by a scene in which Uncle Charlie is challenged by his family for failing to remember the dress he gave the younger Charlie. It makes sense that he would forget it (a momentary impulse easily forgotten) while she would remember it (a cherished gift from the glamorous Big City uncle).
And then a few minutes later we get this—Charlie and his sister arguing over whether he’s ever been photographed before.
All told, that’s 7 scenes in which the film leans towards the idea that Uncle Charlie isn’t really Uncle Charlie, packed into just 20 minutes. 6 of these scenes occur back-to-back within the span of just 4 minutes of running time. So, yes, each one individually can be explained away, as I have done just now—but the question that needs asking is, why are we explaining anything away?
I mean, this isn’t a documentary. These things never happened—they were staged for the purpose of this film by arguably the most detail-obsessive filmmaker in the history of cinema. If there’s anything we can say about Alfred Hitchcock, it’s that the man did not make films carelessly. Every detail of every frame has been meticulously engineered to his exacting specifications.
So what gives? Why does the movie suddenly hunker down and gnaw so furiously on the suggestion that Uncle Charlie is an imposter of some kind, only to then abandon that idea and never return to it?
To answer that, let’s take a look back at how Shadow of a Doubt opens—with Joseph Cotton laying on a bed staring ahead in some brooding funk. As we will come to learn, he is a studied eccentric who thinks himself superior to other people and therefore entitled to exploit and murder them as he will, because their puny lives are of no comparison to his own.
And we meet Teresa Wright in the same pose, laying on a bed in a weird mood. She too seems contemptuous of the parochial life in which she lives, and the mundane habits of the people around her—she flirts with suggesting that her family has no soul.
She has a deep bond with her uncle—more than just the shared name, and more than the psychic connection that seems to spark between them. She has much the same worldview as him—and there’s the horror. Her philosophy isn’t as ruthlessly Nietzschean as her uncle’s, but it’s of the same ilk. The film is about Charlie vs. Charlie, in every possible permutation—she doesn’t have to merely stand up to him, she has to stare down the parts of her own soul that mirror him. She has blood ties to a monster, and recognizes the same monstrous instincts in herself.
And if that isn’t a vampire story, I don’t know what is.
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