I recently fulfilled a 40 year-old dream and finally saw the ever-so-elusive RETURN OF THE TERROR (the Library of Congress has a print). Like most Monster Kids, I first learned about this film from the British trade ad printed in Gifford's "A Pictorial History of Horror Movies". Unfortunately, the film never seemed to turn up on TV, anywhere. Allegedly, it hasn't been shown on TV since 1963. So I considered myself extremely fortunate to see this exceedingly rare movie.
Well... it's a mixed bag of goods.
The film is neither a remake of, nor a sequel to, the 1928 film THE TERROR. "The Terror" is the nickname given by the press to Dr. John Redmayne, who is on trial for having murdered his patients at the Morgan Sanitorium. Although he proclaims his innocence, he pleads insanity and is sentenced to prison. He later escapes and heads back to the Sanitorium. In residence there are his fiancée Olga, and his friend Dr. Goodman, who has invented a fantastic new type of X-ray machine. Also at the sanatorium are a number of very shady characters, including two jewel thieves, a dope addict, a pull-pushing old lady, an eccentric obsessed with knives, and the orderly who testified against Redmayne in court. No sooner does Redmayne appear than corpses begin to pile up. But after a murderous attempt is made on his own life, it appears that Redmayne might not be the killer after all. That plot sounds like prime material for a good blood-and-thunder horror film. The problem, however, is that WB really didn't see the project as a horror film. THE TERROR is definitely an old dark house film. But in RETURN OF THE TERROR there are no secret passages, or clutching hands, or screams in the night. The killer abandons the traditional monk's robes in favor of a trench coat and floppy-brim hat. Numerous opportunities for horror are completely ignored, or underplayed, and the script spends more time on the comic hijinks of Frank McHugh's wisecracking WB-style reporter. The whole thing comes off as a rather mediocre mystery with some slight sorta-kinda genre moments (most notably when the X-ray machine is demonstrated, and the subject can be seem as a skeleton with blinking eyeballs. I don't know how the effect was achieved, but it appears to have been done by painting a skeleton on the actor with luminous paint, and then turning off the lights). There are some nice, potentially creepy settings, and some left-over props from DOCTOR X, but director Bretherton almost deliberately avoids using them for horror effect. This handling places the film in the same category as THE MAD GENIUS and THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. RX. It's a well-made mystery film, with a fantastic cast of character actors; but it's just not an engaging horror film. Needless to say, I was disappointed.
If RETURN OF THE TERROR ever does manage to show up on TCM, watch it. Watch it just to satisfy the completist in you. But don't expect an unknown gem.
Oh, and that vampiric-looking man on the poster in the Gifford book never appears in the film.
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