Mark of the Vampire (1935)
Tod Browning had scored one of the biggest hits of the early sound era when he helmed Dracula (1931). But it was a troubled achievement for the director, who had found repute in his collaborations with Lon Chaney. Chaney had been the perfect partner in constructing Browning’s strange and gruelling studies of exiles in society, perverse flesh and even more perverse spirit. Whilst Browning had been directing movies since 1915, he gained real traction and attention for films like The Unholy Three (1926), The Show, The Unknown (both 1927), West of Zanzibar (1928), and Freaks (1932), works that channelled Browning’s circus background and fascination with role-playing, physical abnormalities, gender-bending, and other fetishes, into intense and bizarre psychodramas. But Browning’s heavy drinking began to stymie his career even as it seemed set to shift to high gear, and he was dogged by rumours that Karl Freund had rescued Dracula from his disinterest in transposing the successful but creaky stage play to the screen unrevised as a vehicle for star Béla Lugosi. The controversy and subsequent poor box office that met Freaks didn’t help matters. But he still managed to find a home briefly at MGM, an unusual port of call for a filmmaker like Browning given the studio’s usual disinterest in the macabre, but Universal was making too much money with their Horror films to ignore.
Browning made three final films at the studio before dropping out of moviemaking, including The Devil-Doll (1936), and a remake of one of his Chaney films, Mark of the Vampire. Mark of the Vampire is an artefact that, much like some of the events it portrays, defies credulity, achieving the texture of delirium. It feels like something that shouldn’t exist, a fever dream spilling out of the wishful imagining of a classic Horror movie fan: what if Browning and Lugosi had reunited after their famous hit to both reiterate and burlesque the style of their instantly iconic collaboration? The ridiculous yet fascinating conceit at the heart of the narrative only exacerbates this feeling. The original Chaney film, London After Midnight (1927), had been constructed as a vehicle for its star’s multifarious talents in disguise, but it’s been a lost film since the mid-1960s. For the remake, Browning’s screenwriters Guy Endore and Bernard Schubert split Chaney’s part into three different roles, and transposed the setting to an Eastern European backwater (the originally proposed title was Vampires of Prague, but said city is somewhere over the horizon).
Mark of the Vampire recycles the somewhat absurd plot of the Chaney vehicle, shifting locales and reconstituting the story for a deep dive into the same sepulchral aesthetic of monstrously overgrown ruins and lurking, peering ghouls that drove Dracula’s eerie, superior first half-hour: scuttling rodents, drenching shadows, fluttering cobwebs, eerie faces peering through murky windows and ponderous, dreamlike peregrinations of the undead through moonlit woods and gardens. The opening is particularly striking for visual conjuring and mood-weaving. Browning stages a dazzling pullback shot from a high church steeple that anticipates the multi-plane camera gymnastics of Gone With the Wind (1939), noting the thrusting campanile and cross lording over a stygian landscape of tangled woods, lurking ground mist, and a lonely gypsy camp fending off the dark with flickering fire. A lonely old woman collecting firewood catches a sleeve on a branch that looks like a clasping corpse’s hand and panics, a brilliant little vignette that sets up not just the film’s dramatic tension in the tension between credulity and scepticism, but which also anticipates Val Lewton’s enriching of this theme. Local physician Dr Doskil (Donald Meek) dashes through the night and takes shelter in the local tavern where he also keeps his office, as he’s terrified of the local legends of lurking vampires, and takes offence at mockery turned his way for his susceptibilities. But Doskil’s anxieties seem to be proved legitimate when local bigwig Sir Karell Borotyn (Holmes Herbert) is found dead in his study, his corpse drained of blood.
Sir Karell’s daughter Irena (Elizabeth Allan) has just recently become engaged to proper young gent Fedor Vincente (Henry Wadsworth), but he becomes a major suspect in the investigation as he now had something to gain by Sir Karell’s demise. Irena’s guardian, her father’s friend Baron Otto von Zinden (Jean Hersholt), takes her in as an investigation begins, led by Inspector Neumann (Lionel Atwill). A year passes, in which time the Borotyn castle falls into neglect, and locals start catching sight of two figures they presume to be infamous ancestors of the family, Count Mora (Lugosi) and his daughter Luna (Carroll Borland), vampires now free to rule their ancient hearth. Fedor stumbles into the Baron’s house one morning after it seems he’s been attacked by the blood drinkers. Neumann calls in an academic researcher, Professor Zelen (Lionel Barrymore), who assures Doskil his fears were correct and fears Irena is prey for the vampires, and so the Baron’s household hunkers down for nights of besiegement until Zelen and Neumann can stage a well-mounted daylight assault on the Borotyn castle to find the vampires’ resting place. But things are not what they seem, to say the least: Zelen and Neumann are collaborating with an acting troupe and Irena to fake the vampire scourge, in trying to draw out the real murderer.
A lot of water had rolled under the bridge in the eight years since London After Midnight’s release, including the coming of sound cinema and the onset of the Depression as well as Chaney’s death. Without any prints of London After Midnight extant it’s difficult to properly assess what amplifications and alterations Browning made from the material, but his revision could almost be an illustration of the dictum of “nothing to fear except fear itself.” Mark of the Vampire creates an elaborately surreal and creepy landscape riddled with monstrous remnants of regimes past, only to eventually demonstrate it’s all hooey, a scheme cooked up to reveal a clasping patriarch’s slimy desire to possess a young woman. Browning’s collaboration with great cinematographer James Wong Howe weaves a mood of estranged nocturnal dread that reiterates the atmosphere Browning achieved in Dracula’s first half-hour in a more sustained fashion — the vast and shadowy deserted places, infested with strange animal life. Wong Howe pulls off some remarkable shots, like one from an interior office looking out at the gypsy camp, and the many images of his characters moving through the dark, light playing upon the most finite substances like the hovering mist strands. Browning evinces something close to an animist sensibility in the way he offers up owls peering in bewildered fascination at panicky humans, plastic spiders scuttling up walls and rodents scurrying into nooks of the deserted castle: the absence of human life is the presence of other forms, and the reduction of the human to the level of animal inherent in the vampire figuration is perfectly at home in such environs.
Browning might have been trying to disprove rumours that he wasn’t responsible for Dracula were exaggerated, or at least to better realise his concept for that film under the cover of reconstituting another of his works. Mark of the Vampire adheres to Browning’s original desire to depict Dracula mostly as a shadowy menace embodying a nightmarish universe. Here that menace, in the form of Mora and Luna, comes out to terrify luckless locals, clawing at the windows and drawing out helpless denizens from their warm and well-lit homes into the night where low-flying bats riddle the air and wisps of mist hover in silken streams. As he did on Dracula, Browning spurns a music score for the most part, and instead utilises a soundtrack where cavernous and murmuring effects are often heard, lending an aural equivalent of the visuals that feels like a prototype for many a later filmmaker’s deeper engagement with sound as a weapon in creating a destabilised mood, from Mario Bava to William Friedkin to David Lynch. Lugosi’s Mora resembles his Dracula in every respect except for a strange bloody mark on his brow, not speaking until the film’s very end, sometimes hovering with a grimly indulgent smile and other times surging out of the dark and fog with unexpected ferocity. Borland as Luna became one of the instant and lasting emblems of Horror cinema in spite of only appearing on screen for about five minutes, in her starkly sepulchral appearances, white face, long black hair, occasionally snarling mouth, and mesmeric eyes, seeming to launch herself upon a hypnotised Irena upon the terrace of the Baron’s house and hover in hallucinatory beauty beyond her bedroom window.
Mark of the Vampire was supposedly severely edited before its general release, and there’s little consensus about just what got cut, although it seems to have included some background information about Count Mora and Luna and quite a bit of comic relief. Endore, who had gained repute for his ambitious novel Werewolf of Paris, supposedly originally intended to recount the legend of Mora who killed himself (hence the wound to his forehead) after developing an incestuous passion for his daughter. It certainly seems possible, particularly as implied or slightly removed incest was a flow of black blood through many Browning films, including The Unknown and West of Zanzibar. Certainly this would echo the foregrounded motive for the murder, which is Baron Otto’s desire to marry Irena, a relationship charged with sleazy implications and with the actor posing as Irena’s resurrected vampire father providing the ghost of proper paternal care. Irena is faced with a growing emotional crisis that seems to be a general paranoia over her seemingly predestined fate to join the vampires in the castle – that is, to be claimed by their incestuous wont. The actual spur of her angst proves instead to actually be sourced in the necessity of lying to Fedor, who must remain out of the loop in the police plot because he’s a suspect, and a plan that demands she go through a morbid piece of play-acting with her “father” to further the illusion in snaring Otto, as Zelen makes recourse to hypnotising the Baron to try and nail down his method of killing and exsanguinating his friend.
Barrymore has a high old time as the crafty, calculatedly hammy savant called in to give credence to the deception. Zelen acts, in effect, as director, Browning’s avatar in the drama as the figure who must encourage everyone to believe the fiction and provide the right setting for the drama. Allan is also good in a potentially thankless part as damsel in distress, satirising Helen Chandler’s role as decorous victim in Dracula. Irena proves by the end to in fact be a somewhat uneasy actor in the drama, eventually confronted and momentarily sent into a fit of distress that gives the game away to the audience if not Otto as life crashes headlong into reality and intense personal pain, as she’s obliged to pretend an actor inhabiting the role of her father is the real thing. There’s still too much comic relief in the film, a common fault of many mid-’30s genre entries (eg Doctor X, 1932, Mad Love, 1935), although some of it does land, as when Doskil and a servant embrace each-other in timorous alarm only to realise they’ve been spooked by a cat, and a sequence depicting a nervous coach driver and his passenger who makes fun of his apprehension until they both see Luna lurking by the castle gate.
As it is, the film scarcely breaches the one-hour mark and yet still sometimes feels alternately choppy and padded, struggling to sustain such a sham story. Browning's Horror works for MGM would both betray uncertainty emanating down from his studio overseers in their attempts to ply a disreputable genre. Where The Devil-Doll splits the difference between pulp weirdness and sentimental melodrama, Mark of the Vampire likewise feels at war with itself, rationalising imperative straining against Browning’s enveloping exercise in pure Gothic Horror style. Many Horror films in this period had debunking plotlines, but Browning’s work here is particularly notable in the degree to which he resists giving the game away until the very end. But he also uses it to essay some elaborate games with perspective and storytelling credulity that feel intriguingly modern. Browning shifts into recounted flashbacks as the Baron’s servants report having seen Mora metamorphose from a winged bat to invade the house and attack them. The Baron and Neumann venture to the castle to glimpse the truly bizarre slight of Luna seeming to fly on bat wings in the company of the growing number of vampires that now includes Sir Karell and his manservant. The notion of unreliable narrators was still pretty radical in literature at the time, and downright rare in cinema, for the same reason: knitting a spell of belief in the absurd that can then be radically undercut. Browning’s cinematic conjuring trick is the same as the one Zelen and Neumann foist on their suspects.
Just how much sense that trick makes as a device in detection is pretty dubious, of course: “We thought our vampire plan was so simple, so certain of success,” Neumann declares to Irena in frustration, begging the question how it could be either of those things. It certainly makes sense when regarded as an elaborate, self-mocking joke on Browning’s part, however. Theatricality, the arts of pretending to be someone else, of games with appearance and value judgements made on these, were his obsessive refrains drawn from his experience, and Mark of the Vampire represents a raspberry blown at his own talent for weaving dreamlike cinematic effect, an expression of amused contempt for his own craft. The brief yet utterly beguiling coda reveals “Count Mora” and “Luna” ending their engagement with the help of a stage hand, Lugosi’s hambone congratulating his own sustained performance (“Did you watch me? I gave all of me. I was greater than any real vampire.”) only to be met by sarcastic entreaties to get out of makeup and help pack. A perfect punch-line for a film that proves it’s possible to be sublime and ridiculous all at once.