Thursday, October 9, 2014

Film Review: MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935, Tod Browning)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 60 minutes.
Tag-line:  None.
Notable Cast or Crew:  Lionel Barrymore (THE DEVIL DOLL, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE), Bela Lugosi (DRACULA, THE BLACK CAT, GLEN OR GLENDA), Carroll Borland (SCALPS, FLASH GORDON), Lionel Atwill (CAPTAIN BLOOD, TO BE OR NOT TO BE), Elizabeth Allan (THE HAUNTED STRANGLER, CAMILLE), Jean Hersholt (GRAND HOTEL, GREED), and Donald Meek (STAGECOACH, THE INFORMER).  Cinematography by James Wong Howe (THE THIN MAN, SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS).
Best One-liner:  "There is no more foul or relentless enemy of man in the occult world than this dead-alive creature spewed up from the grave!

MARK OF THE VAMPIRE is most notable for reuniting director Tod Browning and actor Bela Lugosi under the auspices of a "vampire picture" for the first and last time, post-DRACULA.  I reviewed DRACULA at length a few Halloweens ago, and while MARK OF THE VAMPIRE does not quite approach the ecstatic and otherworldly heights of its predecessor, it's still an extremely fun and stylish horror picture that ought to be of interest to any horror fan.

A loose remake of Browning's (now lost) silent film LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT, which in turn was based on his own short story "The Hypnotist," MARK OF THE VAMPIRE was heavily edited by the studio to remove incestuous undertones (er, let's be honest– this is a Tod Browning picture, let's call them overtones) and as a result it is not as coherent as it should be.  However, the visuals, the glorious visuals– shot by legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe– transform the picture into one of tone and feeling: a sensory, hypnotic experience.

I won't attempt to explain the plot, which is sort of beside the point, so instead I'll offer my five favorite elements of MARK OF THE VAMPIRE:

#1.  A charmingly hammy Lionel Barrymore performance.

Essentially playing a "Van Helsing" character, Barrymore is a Professor of the Occult and a fearless vampire hunter.  He's also chowin' down on the scenery with incessant eyebrow action that calls to mind Christopher Lloyd's "Doc Brown" from BACK TO THE FUTURE.

And I really adore the moment when he's explaining, in a moment worthy of dinner theater, that not even an "army of police or a hurricane of bullets" could stop a vampire

and he pronounces the word "hurricane" as "hurri-kin."  Well done.

#2.  "Bat-thorn."  As far as I know, MARK OF THE VAMPIRE is the first film to unleash "bat-thorn" onto the world.  (Feel free to correct me in the comments section!)   Essentially, it looks kinda like dried sage or rosemary, but has the same alleged effect on vampires as garlic would.  –Huh?  Was Tod Browning sick and tired of all the free product placement in vampire movies for those greedy bastards in the garlic racket?  Maybe.  Who's to say?

#3.  Peculiar animal choices.  I mentioned this in my review of DRACULA, which notably transposes armadillos from Texas... to Transylvania.  In MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, there are plenty of pertinent creepy-crawlies in the vampire's castle,

but for every spider and beetle, there's something unexpected and out-of-place, like an opossum wandering around.

There are 'possums in DRACULA, too!  Why does Tod Browning so desperately want us to associate the opossum with the vampiric urge?  Speculation is encouraged.

#4.  Speaking of creatures, I think Tod Browning gets more milage out of bats on strings here than in any film, before or since.

Many would dare to call this a cheesy effect, but I find it quite endearing and tremendously atmospheric despite the trappings of artificiality.

#5.  Carroll Borland.  As Lugosi's vampiric daughter, Ms. Borland is fantastic, wandering graveyards with raven tresses, scary-eyes, and macabre stink-face all the while.

Note: her scene partner is a bat on a string.

She's eerie, silent (save for one line, delivered off-screen), and a major inspiration on cinema's subsequent vampiresses, even Vampira in PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE.  And I must give a special tip of the hat to a magnificently creepy tableau (and the most complicated special effect in the film) whereupon she flies down from above on fleshy, human-sized batwings:

That is spectacular.  Here's a closeup, for all of you planning on commissioning a painting of her for the next album cover of your Goth-Black-Doom Metal band.


In closing, I recommend MARK OF THE VAMPIRE as atmospheric Halloween season viewing; however; without giving away the end, I'll warn that Browning manages to shoe-horn in his own obsessions with carnies and con men in a zinger of a finale seemingly designed to piss off the audience– though it delighted this viewer.  Four stars.

–Sean Gill

1.  FROM DUSK TILL DAWN 2: TEXAS BLOOD MONEY (1999, Scott Spiegel)
2. ...


Giuseppe Balestra (MaximaFobia) said...

I've seen it some days ago, and i've loved it!

Sean Gill said...

Nice– thanks for stopping by!