Saturday, October 27, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935)

Like Dracula's Daughter (1936), Mark of the Vampire (1935) plays out as a kind of semi-sequel to Dracula (1931), even though this Tod Browning picture was made for MGM rather than Universal. The movie reunites Browning with his Dracula star, Bela Lugosi, but it also stocks the screen with a bevy of other memorable stars, including Lionel Barrymore, Jean Hersholt, Lionel Atwill, and Donald Meek. The film suffers from plot holes made worse by the studio's decision to cut several scenes, and today it is not nearly as well known as its iconic predecessor, but fans of the horror genre and classic star watchers will find Mark of the Vampire interesting enough because of its cast and the ways in which it looks back at the 1931 original.

The story revolves around the murder of Sir Karell (Holmes Herbert), who is found drained of blood with two small marks on his neck. The locals blame two vampires, Count Mora (Bela Lugosi) and Luna (Carroll Borland), who are said to haunt the neighborhood castle. When Sir Karell's daughter, Irena (Elizabeth Allan), and her suitor, Fedor (Henry Wadsworth), are also attacked, an occult expert (Lionel Barrymore) is called in to hunt down the undead creatures, but the truth is both stranger and more earthly than it first appears.

Top-billed Lionel Barrymore doesn't actually make his appearance in the film until twenty minutes in, but his Professor Zelen takes over the Van Helsing role, played by Barrymore as a sort of old time politician with lots of posturing and self-conscious gestures. If he hams it up a bit too much, at least it helps him hold the screen against Hersholt, Atwill, and Lugosi, all of whom are far more interesting than the story's dull romantic leads. The scene stealer of the bunch, however, is newcomer Carroll Borland, who looks terrific with her pale face, staring eyes, and flowing white shroud. Her attacks on Irena recall J. Sheridan Le Fanu's predatory Carmilla and provide some of the best images of the picture.

Despite the effective Gothic atmosphere and unusual vampire effects that Browning builds up in the first part of the film, he ultimately opts for a Radcliffean model of Gothic narrative that reveals the appearance of the supernatural as mere facade. While that allows for a smirking coda of comedy with Lugosi and Borland, it also creates huge problems with the logic of the events that have already occurred. Viewers will end up asking a lot of questions that simply have no answers, although some of them, perhaps, were addressed in the missing scenes that MGM cut out. Why, for example, does Count Mora sport a ghastly wound on his temple? How do the vampires fly in and out of second story rooms? At least the ending does help us understand why a household under attack from supposed vampires keeps opening all of its windows and doors at night.

Mark of the Vampire is no masterpiece, certainly, but at only 60 minutes long it repays the time spent on it with an entertaining look at some truly iconic Hollywood stars. For more of Browning's work with Lionel Barrymore, see The Devil-Doll (1936). You'll find Barrymore and Hersholt in both Grand Hotel (1932) and Dinner at Eight (1933). Lionel Atwill, a genre regular, turns up in horror classics like The Vampire Bat (1933), Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), Son of Frankenstein (1939), and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). See more of Bela himself in White Zombie (1932), The Wolf Man (1941), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).