Monday, March 26, 2007

Mark of the Vampire – review


Director: Tod Browning

Release Date: 1935

Contains spoilers

I’ve wanted to catch this movie for some time and thanks to TCM last night I finally got the opportunity. Unfortunately this has left me in a bit of a quandary review wise. You see the film has a massive twist at the end, which I do not want to give away. Firstly because it is a shoddy trick to do so and also because I watched the film knowing the twist and felt I would have enjoyed it even more had I been in the dark. That said I like to look at the vampire lore and the twist does have a bearing – never mind, the twist will remain sacrosanct and you’ll have to watch the film to find out.

The film itself is a remake of Browning’s, unfortunately lost, London After Midnight (1927) – incidentally I believe there is a ‘restored’ London After Midnight using photograph stills. We begin in a Hungarian Village and see scenes of villagers tying a herb all over the place. Later we discover this is bat-thorn, a vampire deterrent. An old woman gathers the herb in a cemetery when a bat flies out and scares the bejeezus out of her.

Donald Meek as DoskilIn an inn an English couple are being persuaded to stay through the night. A horse and trap arrives and it is local Doctor Doskil (Donald Meek) racing the dark to safety. It seems that all the locals fear vampires, though the English couple are scornful. The next day the body of Sir Karell Borotyn (Holmes Herbert) is found. Doskil confirms he has been killed by a vampire – there are two punctures on his neck and his body has been drained of blood. Nuemann and Baron OttoThe police inspector, Neumann (Lionel Atwill), is sceptical, believing a more earthly cause perhaps it was the suitor of Borotyn’s daughter Irena (Elizabeth Allan), one Fedor Vincenté (Henry Wadsworth), ensuring that his fiancée was even more wealthy. Maybe it was Baron Otto (Jean Hersholt) who becomes the girl’s guardian and executor.

Though the coronor records death by means unknown the locals are in no doubt that it is the work of a vampire, specifically Count Mora (Bela Lugosi) or his daughter Luna (Carroll Borland). Now, one of the problems with the film is how much ended up being edited out. The film is 55 minutes long but the original previews were reported to be 80 minutes. Notice the bullet woundOne part that was excised by the censors was the back story of our vampires. Lugosi sports an obvious bullet wound to the head and the story says that Mora was a suicide who has been involved in an incestuous relationship with his daughter. The immorality of the incestuous act, coupled with suicide, was the reason for them becoming vampires. Such references were deemed as too scandalous and the censors demanded the references be removed.

fedora recovers from his ordealOne year after Sir Karell’s death Fedor is found dishevelled having fallen near the castle. An inspection shows wounds upon his neck. Locals start to see Mora and Luna stalking the night and Irena is attacked by Luna – describing the attack beautifully as a “deathly cold breath upon my throat.” The still sceptical Neumann calls in Professor Zelin (Lionel Barrymore) who confirms that vampires are haunting the night.

Mora with Sir KarellThere is not just Mora and his daughter, however, Sir Karell has risen – leaving an empty coffin behind – and there is a fourth vampire unnamed - but possibly a farmer who was mentioned at the coroners.

The race is on to stop the vampires before Irena and Fedor are themselves transformed into the undead.

TheLuna bat winged vampire lore is interesting. They can turn into bats and they cannot be harmed at night – by anything. It is only during the day, in their deathlike sleep, that they can be stopped. The only way to kill a vampire is to cut off the head and place a sprig of bat-thorn in the wound. We see Luna fly, at one point, with giant bat wings.

The film drips atmosphere, in fact Browning lays it on with a shovel. Notice the bat?Most of this surrounds Mora and Luna who stalk through misty graveyards and down cobweb festooned corridors. There seem to be bats wherever they go. Browning actually imported Large South American bats for the production but, obviously, those we see flying round the actors are props. They are not the best bats but somehow it didn’t matter, they seem to work – so no crap bat syndrome here.

Carroll Borland as LunaThe two main vampires are fabulous. Lugosi has no dialogue until the end – post twist so I cannot tell you what it is, but it is worth watching the film for that one line – yet he is still great, filling the screen with a malevolence whenever he appears. Borland looks fabulous, making an archetypal vamp that has been aped ever since. If I had one complaint it was that their screen time is limited.

Lionel Barrymore as Professor ZelinMost of the actors over-act, and you know what it is fine – it fits the film perfectly well. None, however, overacts with the same exuberance as Barrymore. The actor hams it to the max, and it is great fun, I felt a little smile creep onto my lips every time he appeared on screen. Zelin is a great character and you always feel there is much more going on behind his outward appearance, there could have been a tendency to make the character Van Helsing like, but he is a very different character.

Action vampAs for the twist. All I will say is that the actors were unaware of it until a few days before shooting and I wasn’t too sure about it. It seemed terribly contrived but it was a brave move.

This is a classic of the horror genre and is a must watch. That said it has flaws, the lost footage is problematic at times – mainly around back story and legend - and the overacting, whilst marvellous fun, diminishes the drama. 7 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.


fenris said...

My favourite vampire movie from the classic era of the Thirties and Forties. I'd love to see a complete version with the censored footage restored, but it must have all been binned or destroyed long ago.

On a related note, Maria Coolidge-Rusk's novelization of London After Midnight is now available again for the first time since it's original publication in 1928, as it's been reprinted by Couch Pumpkin Press.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

I doubt the censored footage survived past editing but it would be nice to see it.

re London After Midnight... ooh thanks for that :D

fenris said...

You're welcome, Taliesin.

Can Mark of the Vampire claim to be the first lesbian vampire movie? Despite all the various male characters running around, it's Irena who Luna is exclusively interested in. I consider the scenes featuring the two of them to be undeniably sexually charged.
I adore the sequence when Luna (behaving more like a lover than a predator) approaches Irena and tenderly touches her, whereupon an overwhelmed/frightened Irena instinctively backs away & sits down, and Luna silently tries to comfort & reassure her. Irena's fiance Fedor then interupts, causing Luna to hiss cat-like at him, grab Irena by the hand and protectively bundle her away. The entire scene is spellbinding.
(Incidentally, Luna's hiss was apparently an improvised ad-lib. All female vampires have hissed cat-like ever since, thanks to Caroll Borland.)
Since Mark of the Vampire was released the year before Dracula's Daughter (1936) - in which the title character preys upon a nervous street-walker called Lili (played by Nan Grey) in a scene heavy with sexual tension - I believe this means Luna is almost certainly cinema's first lesbian vampire.

Caroll Borland was also the author of a vampire novel. As a teenager, inspired by seeing Lugosi's performance of Dracula on stage, she wrote Countess Dracula, a direct sequel to Stoker's novel. It was eventually published over six decades later, by Magic Image Filmbooks in 1994, a few months before Borland died.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

You know it probably is the first vampire film with a lesbian subtext :)

Taliesin_ttlg said...

by eck, Countess Dracula (which I didn't know about, so thanks for that) is not blooming cheap!

fenris said...

Quite. I'd love to own a copy of Borland's Countess Dracula (a Dracula sequel written by one of cinema's most iconic vampires? Yes please!), but even secondhand copies are way out of my price range. I live in hope of an inexpensive reprint.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

indeed :)

fenris said...

Have just discovered that a new (and much more affordable) edition of Caroll Borland's Countess Dracula was published by BearManor Media in 2015, and seems to be still widely available in both hardcover and paperback.

BearManor Media have also published various other vampire themed books, mostly written by Philip J. Riley, including several about movies that were in development or pre-production at Universal but ultimately never filmed. Titles include: London After Midnight (containing numerous existing stills from the film); The Wolfman vs Dracula; Dracula's Daughter (containing the original unfilmed script); Dracula Starring Lon Chaney; Dracula: The Original 1931 Shooting Script, etc.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Cheers Fenris, that's the edition of Borman's that is in my wish list :) some interesting other books... hmm... the Dracula's Daughter looks good