Thursday, 23 June 2016


“There are things going on in this house that I don’t like”.

By the mid-1930, the horror film was spinning its wheels, killing time between its initial fever of box-office excitement that began with Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein (1931-32) through a gradual slump until the genre was revitalised again in 1938 by the surprise double-bill hit pairing of the two by an enterprising cinema owner in New York. Despite twitchings of hope such as The Mummy and James Whale’s The invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein, the patient was in a coma during the middle of the decade.

Tod Browning’s Mark of the Vampire (released after a title change from Vampires of Prague) in 1935 is a good example, being a waste of numerous talents including Browning himself. The director had gone from the artistic high-point of his vampire classic and the sensationally controversial Freaks (1932) to what feels like a road-company re-tread of his better days. The M-G-M film was meant to be a remake of his lost 1927 London After Midnight for the same studio, but as David J. Skal points out in his book The Monster Show, it also bears a parallel resemblance to Browning’s Dracula, the comparison marked most starkly by an almost wordless, demeaning vampire cameo from the earlier movie’s star Bela Lugosi. Indeed most of the name cast are squandered and there are many other elements mirroring the Universal film.

The mysterious death at home of the wealthy Sir Karell Borotyn, (horror film stalwart Holmes Herbert) leads the locals to suspect vampirism due to the tiny puncture marks on his neck. Browning weaves in their superstitious fears via a graveyard prologue featuring a gypsy woman scared by the old (un) reliable ‘bat on a stick’. A holidaying English couple scoff at such myths: “They’ll never believe that at the club!” yet the villagers’ terror is much more real than the rubber bats. They speak in hushed tones of the legendary Count Mora, his name taken from the Bohemian word for vampire.
In comes the intrepid Inspector Neumann from Prague to investigate in the moustached form of an under-used Lionel Atwill, assisted by another character player, Donald Meek’s quivering Dr Dostil. 

The dead Sir Karell leaves behind two children as well as Baron Otto who will run the estate for them. The Baron is Jean Hersholt whose film roles were over-shadowed by his humanitarian efforts on behalf of the industry that led to the Academy Award for such services given out thereafter in his name. Sadly, there’s not much aid that can help here as gradually more talent is drafted in to precious little effect. Elisabeth Allan is the beautiful daughter and main inheritor Irena, later required to essentially be the Mina Harker victim to the eventual vampire. Her brother Feydor (Henry Wadsworth) collapses upon entering in a weakened, delirious state after falling inexplicably near the castle. He bears a triangular set of needle-pricks to his neck as well.

This allows us a first glimpse of Lugosi as the evil Count Mora, accompanied by the hot but blank Carroll Borland as his goth paramour Luna. They have rented the nearby castle which, like his performance, references Dracula in all but name, right down to the scurrying armadillo, bats and splendidly-effective gigantic web that promotional photos used to great effect.  We must rely on his trusty ‘menacing glower’ expression more than usual in Mark of the Vampire as unfortunately right up till the epilogue he is reduced to literally silent vamp-ing with his partner.  The blood-stained residue of a bullet-wound to the temple is intriguing. Skal attributes this to a suicide back-story following incest with his daughter, however, due to the censor erasing any such distaste it is never referenced.  Rather than a strategic cameo lent by a powerhouse name, this was a woeful waste of Lugosi, a talent who in a few short years was already reduced to taking what he could get.

Possibly the greatest contribution to Mark of the Vampire is the excellent cinematography by the celebrated James Wong Howe, (double Oscar winner out of ten career nominations for The Rose Tattoo and Hud). He was famous for filming actresses most flatteringly and without resorting to soft focus or gauze trickery - and was renowned for his artistic philosophy of collaborating with his director early in the planning stages and adjusting his technique to suit the material. Since by all accounts Browning had acceded the look (and some direction) of Dracula to the equally talented cameraman Karl Freund, one wonders to what extent he gave the same control to Howe as the most vivid aspect of the film is its visuals – the use of shadows and the foggy sets showcasing Lugosi and Borland work well. It’s also worth noting the sound design that enhances the creepiness of the atmosphere when the undead are lurking with a highly-effective soft breeze, the low human moaning of tortured souls.

In terms of performances, the sole one of interest is that of Lionel Barrymore (elder of the Barrymore acting dynasty and brother of John), whose Professor Zelen brings the occult knowledge that pinpoints him as the film’s homage to Count Dracula’s nemesis Van Helsing.  He gives Zelen a beetle-browed, scholarly energy that enlivens the movie somewhat. Like his inspiration, he struggles to protect the family from the undead, urging the maid and butler to strew bat-thorn around the house. This cues an attack on the staff from Count Mora, appearing in a slapdash effect shot that crudely cuts from a jiggling, wired bat emitting smoke to Lugosi without any attempt at a merging dissolve. Barrymore’s enthusiasm provides a moment of amusement as he relishes the method of vampire dispatch, not knowing that Mora is outside the room. “The head must be severed with one clean stroke and a sprig of bat-thorn placed within the gaping wound”. Lugosi’s expression of concern as he hears this is priceless.

In the end, where Mark of the Vampire cleaves closest to London After Midnight is in the third act revelation that the whole setup has been conceived in order to trap Baron Otto into revealing himself as the murderer – including the vampires. He undergoes hypnosis causing him to re-enact his poisoning and marking of Sir Karell’s neck on the night of the crime. I’m no expert in law but would hypnotic ‘recall’ be viable in court as evidence of previous action – or thrown out as possibly an act of imagination instead?

I’m probably looking too deeply into this elaborate web which is more than Lugosi was able to do. After his own trance-like autopilot stalking, he only gets to speak at the very end when we see him and Borland revealed as travelling actors backstage next to their theatricals’ wicker basket. There’s a tragic irony to his grandeur when he says: “This vampire business has given me a great idea for a new act” as the next two decades were to see him terminally wedded to his most popular role, a tour de force becoming ‘forced to tour, slogging endless increasingly tawdry stage shows of Dracula around the U.S. until his death...

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