Tod Browning, 1935
Starring: Lionel Barrymore, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Elizabeth Allen, Carol Borland
A prominent Czech aristocrat, Sir Karell Borotyn, is found dead in his home. His friend, Baron Otto, and his doctor suspect vampires, a popular local superstition, when marks are found on his neck. The Prague inspector doesn’t believe them and begins searching for a human murderer. It just so happens that there is a suspicious family, Count Mora and his daughter Lura, that live in a spooky local castle and that the locals believe are vampires. It seems that Sir Karell’s distraught and lovely young daughter, Irena, is next on Mora’s list. An expert on the occult is called in, Professor Zelen, and he works to protect Irena and help catch the vampire (or human) culprits.
I know it’s not a popular opinion, but I loved Mark of the Vampire. MGM didn’t have a lot of horror outings in the ‘30s, certainly not compared to Universal, but this is one of their classier efforts with director Tod Browning, who was winding towards the end of his career here. The visuals and atmosphere are absolutely wonderful, almost more so than Browning’s Dracula. There are numerous shots of a spooky castle, fog drenched graveyards, empty coffins, bats, and cape-wearing vampires. Luna (Carol Borland) seems to be the focus of much of James Wong Howe’s cinematography, with creepy shots of her looking in windows, wandering through the myst, and even floating in on batwings. She has little dialogue and sometimes looks overly wooden, but there is no doubt that she is the erotic center of the film. Elizabeth Allen, very similar to Dracula’s Helen Chandler, though perhaps less melancholic, pales in comparison.
Bela Lugosi is also absolutely delightful and hams it up as much as the camera will allow. It seems fitting that he and Borland close out the film and this is their only real scene with dialogue. Lionel Barrymore is delightful as the Van Helsing-like Professor Zelen and chews scenery with gusto. While Lugosi and Barrymore absolutely steal the film, there are a number of nice appearances from other genre actors. Lionel Atwill (The Mystery of the Wax Museum) is good, if a bit bland as the inspector, though that is likely the fault of the script, and Jean Hersholt (The Cat Creeps) is decent as the overly friendly Baron von Zinden. Henry Wadsworth plays the romantic male lead, Irena’s fiancée and is at least a little more colorful and expressive than David Manners was in Dracula. While Manners’ ineffectual quality was dull and frustrating, Wadsworth’s almost constant passing out is actually quite funny.
Mark of the Vampire is a quickly paced film and will be over before you know it. The twist ending will either delight viewers, as it did with me, or enrage them. The thing you have to understand from some of Browning’s films is that they simply don’t put a lot of effort into making sense. The Devil-Doll is another example of this. Spoiler alert: The final twist is that Count Mora and his daughter Luna are not vampires, but actors hired to pretend to be vampires in order to draw the real murderer out and force him (or her) to confess. Personally, I found this hilarious, but I can see how frustrating it would be if you were expecting a straightforward horror tale. This is actually a loose remake of Browning’s lost film London After Midnight with Lon Chaney, so anyone who has read anything about that film will not be surprised by the twist ending.
This is not entirely a horror film and has many murder mystery and black comedy elements. It almost feels like Browning made a stronger, more compelling version of Dracula, but felt the need to add in elements from other genres. He also seems to be is making fun of horror and old dark house mystery films, but, if anything, I think that strengthens the film, as it did with James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein.
There are rumors that the film was roughly fifteen minutes longer and MGM allegedly cut out a subplot where Count Mora, who has a bullet hole in his left temple, killed himself because of his incestuous relationship with Luna. I don’t think this would have fit in with the existing film, but it certainly would have made the proceedings a lot stranger and more uncomfortable, considering that Mora and Luna’s relationship is a parallel for Irena’s relationship with her dead (and supposedly vampiric) father.
Mark of the Vampire will not be for everyone, but it comes highly recommended and is worth watching at least once. It is available for free at Archive.org and also as part of the Hollywood Legends of Horror collection that includes The Devil-Doll, The Mask of Fu Manchu, Mad Love, Doctor X, and The Return of Doctor X.