Poor Bela Lugosi. After he made Dracula in 1931, Hollywood never really seemed to know how to best use his talents. Add in a worsening drug addiction to morphine and methadone resulting from severe, chronic sciatica, and the poor guy just never seemed to get a break. In 1951, Bela went to England to reprise his most famous role in a six month stage run of Dracula. The play flopped and Bela was stranded in England with no money to return to the USA. A producer friend pulled a favor from another producer and Bela Lugosi was cast, entirely for the fame of his name, in a “lowbrow movie comedy” titled Vampire Over London. He was paid the pathetic sum of $5,000 for his role. But at least it got him back in the USA.
Vampire Over London was actually the final film in a British film series called Old Mother Riley. The series was based on a music hall act by husband and wife comedy team Arthur Lucan and Kitty McShane. Arthur Lucan dressed in drag to play the part of an old “Irish washerwoman and charwoman character” named Mrs. Riley while his wife Kitty played the part of Mrs. Riley’s darling young daughter. The couple started their act on stage and radio and took it to film with Stars on Parade (1936). Their second film was Kathleen Mavourneen (1937). By their third film, 1937’s Old Mother Riley, their film series had adopted the Mother Riley name in all their titles. The Old Mother Riley films were cheaply made but very popular and extremely profitable. There are 17 films in all running from 1936 to 1952. While the films were profitable the marriage was not (there were rumors of Kitty’s many affairs). By 1951’s Old Mother Riley’s Jungle Treasure, Arthur Lucan and Kitty McShane were even shooting their scenes on separate days to avoid each other. They divorced soon after and the final Mother Riley film, Vampire Over London, is the only one in the series that does not star Kitty as Mrs. Riley’s daughter.
While the Old Mother Riley film series was hugely popular in England, it had never managed to make the jump across the pond. The studio hoped that Bela Lugosi’s famous name added to the cast might help the series succeed outside of England. Alas, the movie flopped at the box office and Vampire Over London never made it to the USA until 1963 (which was six years after Bela Lugosi‘s death). And even then, the studio changed the title to My Son, the Vampire in the hopes of riding the success of a long-forgotten-but-successful-at-the-time hit comedy record My Son, the Folksinger. Poor Arthur Lucan dropped dead and died in his dressing room while performing Old Mother Riley on stage in 1954. His understudy and his former wife tried to keep the Mrs. Riley act going but it faded out. When Bela Lugosi returned to America after the film, he did a television interview in which he wistfully commented on his horror film typecasting “Now I am the boogie man”. Bela also expressed the wish to do more comedy films like Vampire Over London. He does appear to have had fun making the film; there is a glint in his eye and an easiness in his role that was often missing in many of his other movies. Bela’s comment about doing more comedy led directly to another producer casting him in another horror / comedy, Bela Lugosi meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (I reviewed that film almost exactly a year ago).
Vampire Over London aka My Son, the Vampire, is a horror / comedy hoot. Actually, there is not a lot of horror. Bela Lugosi is in fine form as a mad scientist who calls himself a vampire in order to instill fear and plots to take over the world with an army of robots. Everything film fans remember fondly about Bela is present: the intriguing accent, the evil smile, the swirling cape. But it is not scary except for maybe the youngest of film fans. Meanwhile, Arthur Lucan piles on the laughs with his rowdy and raunchy Old Mother Riley running rampant over Bela’s best laid plans. And boy, does Mrs. Riley ever run madly around: upstairs, down stairs, in and out of windows, tussling with rent collectors and robots and police officers, going face first into a barrel of flour, and getting bested by a madly revolving secret door. There is even a song and dance routine thrown in for good measure early on: the rascally old lady sings a corny (and very tinny) song, “I lift up my finger and say tweet tweet, now now, shush shush, come come” while the rent collector and some neighbor ladies chime in. It is a lot of crazy fun. Think Three Stooges or Abbott and Costello. By the way, the plot of Vampire Over London was actually taken from 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein which is another (unfortunately NOT Public Domain) film that Bela Lugosi starred. Hint: this is one of my favorite Abbott and Costello movies – watch it if you get the chance, it is hilarious.
So, overall, Vampire Over London is crazy fun, Bela Lugosi seems to be having fun in his role, and Arthur Lucan makes for a madcap old Irish lady. There are also some hilarious supporting roles: especially Tillie the maid and her police officer swain. Watch for Tilly to go sleepwalking and later take on that madly revolving secret door. The film runs just over one hour and 13 minutes. It is dark in places and there are a few glitches. Audio is fine but some Americans might find some of the English accents and idioms a little hard to understand. While there are numerous other Old Mother Riley films, Vampire Over London, the last of the series, is the only one in the Public Domain and available for FREE downloading or online viewing at the Internet Archive. IA has two versions available, both are the same movie just listed by the different titles: Vampire Over London and My Son, the Vampire. Enjoy!