Mark of the Vampire

by Charlie Largent Oct 11, 2022

Mark of the Vampire
Warner Archive Collection
1935 / 1.33: 1 / 60 Min.
Starring Lionel Barrymore, Bela Lugosi
Written by Guy Endore, Bernard Schubert
Directed by Tod Browning

Tod Browning died in 1962, living long enough to see his work enjoy a resurgence on late night’s Shock Theater, a syndicated TV package featuring Universal’s classic horror films. Browning’s Dracula was one of the crown jewels of that series but if you wanted to see more of the director’s work it probably wouldn’t be on television—his most infamous films were too lurid even for the midnight hour: potboilers populated by deformed and deranged circus performers, bloodthirsty magicians, and cross-dressing ventriloquists.

1932’s Freaks was the ne plus ultra of the Browning shockers, a sawdust soap opera pitting a beautiful prima donna against unorthodox carny performers—”unorthodox” because these folks were, on the surface, strange figures whose physical abberations made them outcasts everywhere except the circus. It’s Browning’s most humane film and it caused an absolute scandal: audiences were so disturbed by previews that Irving Thalberg cut close to 30 minutes and still the film was banned in the United Kingdom for over three decades. The movie made a comeback in 1962, showing at the Venice Film Festival just one month before Browning’s death.

After Freaks the unrepentant director went into a kind of exile; Browning would make just four more films, a romantic farce called Fast Workers, the macabre mystery Miracles for Sale, a sci-fi melodrama called The Devil-Doll, and Mark of the Vampire, a gothic-tinged whodunit starring Lionel Barrymore and Bela Lugosi. The potential for perversity was ripe in this story of a vampire’s reign of terror—but for once, Tod Browning minded his manners.

Produced in 1935, the movie is a remake of Browning’s own 1927 chiller, London After Midnight, one of the most storied lost films in cinema history. This was Browning’s golden boy period and London After Midnight, like many of the director’s more outré achievements, was an unlikely hit (The Boston Globe called it “mysterious and grewsome”). Lon Chaney played two roles, a Scotland Yard bloodhound and a London-based bloodsucker—the actor’s demonic makeup survives only in studio stills and still manages to raise hackles. In the 1935 re-Vamp, those roles are divided between Barrymore as an inquisitive professor and Lugosi as the titular bogeyman. Lionel Atwill brings his authoritarian swagger to the thankless role of Inspector Neumann, the Danish character actor Jean Hersholt plays a jolly Lubitsch type named Baron Otto, and the enigmatic Carroll Borland plays Lugosi’s pale-faced daughter Luna (Edna Tichenor, a bona fide silent film vamp, played the role in the original.)

This is first and foremost an MGM production: lavish sets designed by Cedric Gibbons, posh costuming by Adrian, and, above all, cinematography by James Wong Howe (it was the 51st feature for the then 36 year-old artist). The tale unfolds in Vysoká, an actual European town reimagined by Gibbons as a high-gloss version of the rickety villages of the Universal horrors. The tiny hamlet is also home to the same high-strung rustics who enlivened James Whale’s legendary run of horror comedies like The Invisible ManUna O’Connor is nowhere to be found but Russian actor Michael Visaroff, the memorably spooked innkeeper of Dracula, is on hand once again, excitable as ever and still tending bar for the locals.

These folk are an unusually nervous and superstitious lot, and they have a right to be: Karell Borotyn, an aristocrat whose castle sits at the edge of town, has been found slumped at his desk and drained of blood. The aptly-named Donald Meek plays Dr. Doskil who wastes no time with his verdict; this was the work of a vampire. Enter Barrymore as Professor Zelin, the film’s ersatz Van Helsing—he may be a scientist but he harbors his own superstitions—high on his list of potential bloodsuckers are local weirdos Count Mora and his daughter Luna who make a habit of celebrating Halloween year round. Luna’s somnambulant presence doesn’t preclude her from sprouting gigantic bat wings and taking flight. And dressed in a splendid cape and tuxedo, Mora is an uncanny twin of Dracula himself, the very model of a modern vampire.

A silent film director at heart, Browning introduces several protracted moments of silence in Mark of the Vampire, particularly in the scenes of Lugosi and Borland creeping around the furniture—the hushed atmosphere is enhanced by the lack of a musical score. That same approach gave Dracula a weirdly hermetic mood, even with its languorous pace and stage-bound theatricality, that seminal classic is more modern than one might think: it feels like the movie equivalent of ambient music. But Mark of the Vampire is a much more conventional film and the languid pace isn’t hypnotic, it’s boring—it could have appeared on Shock Theater in 1962 without a whisper of protest. Not so in 1935, Browning may have been playing nice but contemporary audiences still found something to scream about: The New York Times received a letter from one particularly injured soul claiming that “a dozen of the worst obscene pictures cannot equal the damage that is done by such films as The Mark of the Vampire.” Now that sounds like a film worthy of Tod Browning.

Warner Archive’s new Blu ray is a beauty, worth having in any movie fan’s collection simply for Wong Howe’s exquisite cinematography. There are few extras on the disc but the highlight is an informative feature length commentary with Kim Newman and Stephen Jones. The other supplements are minor but amusing fare, a 1935 Crime Doesn’t Pay entry called A Thrill for Thelma, a Happy Harmonies cartoon, The Calico Dragon, and the original theatrical trailer featuring Bela who addresses the audience while in character as Count Mora.

Here’s John Landis on Mark of the Vampire:

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