Baron, there are things going on in this castle that I don’t like.
--Inspector Neumann, Master of Understatement
In 1927, Tod Browning made London After Midnight, starring the legendary Lon Chaney. It has grown famous for a number of reasons. It's the first full-length Hollywood vampire film, co-written and directed by Browning a few years before he made Dracula. Despite mixed reviews, it made more money than any of Browning and Chaney's other collaborations. It features original and memorable vampire make-up, well-known to horror fans from the many surviving stills. The film itself, however, has not survived. The last known copy burned in a fire in 1965, and it has become something of a (un)Holy Grail among collectors.
In 1935, Browning remade the film as Mark of the Vampire. The new version featured a noteworthy cast, including Lionel Barrymore, Lionel Atwill, and Bela Lugosi. It's not just a sound remake; Browning stole from every horror film produced in the years between, including his own Dracula. The film plays like a walk through a small-town haunted house at Halloween (All proceeds go to....), complete with crumbling, web-shrouded rooms, medieval armour, a clutching hand, twisted trees, aged tombstones, an empty coffin, dry bones, mysterious gypsies, a gratuitous gnarled hag, rubber spiders, giant bats, scuttering rats, staring owls, creeping shadows, nocturnal screams, secret passages, an olde legende, and, of course, prowling vampires. The film also introduced some future clichés. Carroll Borland's character, Luna, established the definitive twentieth-century pop-culture look for the female vampire, the one imitated by Vampira, Morticia, and that Goth girl you knew in the early 90s. Lionel Atwill plays the local monster-plagued inspector; he would repeat the performance in a handful of later Universal creature features.
The movie features an all-star cast, who chew the cobweb-covered scenery shamelessly. We're early in the era of talkies, when stage-and-silent influenced acting remained the norm. We're also watching a film which nods towards two genres (horror and farce) known for overwrought performances. We shouldn't be surprised to see hammy acting, but current audiences may find it very hard to take. Barrymore manages the most satisfying performance, campy but compelling. Fans of vaudeville-influenced comedy will likely enjoy the frequent comic relief provided by various minor characters.
Mark of the Vampire opens in a European setting of the sort found in the old Universal horror movies which MGM was imitating. An aged gypsy wanders through a graveyard that will have very little to do with the rest of the film, but the scene, frightful and funny, helps establish mood and genre. Meanwhile, at the Inn, a traveling couple scoff at the local legend of the vampire, Count Mora, and his daughter Luna, who haunt the village's crumbling castle. Mora has been blamed for the death of Sir Harold and a local farmer, and the situation grows worse during the night. Soon, despite the skepticism of Inspector Neumann, an eccentric Van Helsing-like professor has arrived. He insists that there are such things as vampires and that everyone should use the one known vampire repellent. Crosses? Garlic? Wolfbane? Holy Water? "Bat-thorn!" it turns out, is the item of choice.
Most prone to attack is beautiful young heiress Irena, who hears the haunting voice of Luna the Vampire Girl and thinks she sees her late father walking about. Eventually, we learn the truth....
...The vampires are all part of a ridiculously complex ruse designed to smoke out Sir Harold's killer, who had used the vampire legend to cover his crime.
This plot twist, absurd in London After Midnight, becomes more convoluted and far-fetched in the remake. The faux vampire plot has been made more complicated, yet it ultimately serves little purpose. It doesn't work, though it contributes somewhat to the hypnotizing of the killer, by which means the authorities learn the truth. The actors portraying the vampires rig horribly complex supernatural effects (which are never explained) and maintain their charade when no one save the audience is watching. Browning kept the twist ending from the actors as long as possible, and Lugosi and others reportedly requested a second twist be added: the Count and Luna would be real vampires pretending to be actors pretending to be vampires. This would have explained a lot, and couldn't really have made the ending any more confusing.
Adding to an already complicated, twisted plot is the short running time; the studio cut the film significantly. Considerations of taste (and the controversy surrounding Brownings' last film, Freaks) led MGM (allegedly) to remove references to Count Mora’s origin, cursed because he was a suicide who'd had an incestuous relationship with his daughter.1 That unconfirmed claim aside, they certainly removed quite a bit of footage, leaving a crowd of characters on the cutting room floor and a jumpy, uneven film. Lionel Barrymore's character appears seemingly from nowhere.
Production quality varies. Despite the presence of some major stars, this wasn’t one of MGM's big-budget films. The female vampire flies to the ground, bat-like, in a nice, old-style mechanical effect.2 However, the bats and spiders look fake, and likely did in 1935. Settings resemble soundstages; the castle is clearly a matte painting.
Mark of the Vampire retains a certain appeal. It represents an early era of horror cinema, and indicates that other studios took part in this genre, known now mostly through Universal's contributions. It both participates and pokes fun at a genre's conventions. It represents one of the very few times Lugosi played a vampire, the mythic creature with which he is now identified. It also revisits London After Midnight, a film which we shall likely never see. This movie has made its mark and, if you're interested in the era or the history of the genre, this makes an interesting companion to Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man.
Written by Guy Endore, Bernard Schubert, Tod Browning, et al.
Directed by Tod Browning
Lionel Barrymore as Professor Zelin
Elizabeth Allan as Irena
Bela Lugosi as Count Mora
Lionel Atwill as Inspector Neumann
Jean Hersholt as Baron Otto
Henry Wadsworth as Fador
Donald Meek as Dr. Doskil
Carroll Borland as Luna
Leila Bennett as Maria
1. This convoluted method of becoming a vampire suits this film, but the idea that suicides risk becoming vampires exists in European lore. Perhaps don't share this information with your local angst-ridden kid in black.
2. According to Denis Gifford's A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, it took three weeks to get the shot. In the film, the actors quickly rig it to further convince the suspect that he is witnessing real supernatural creatures at work.