Friday, February 24, 2012

Mark of the Vampire - 1935

 Director:                   Tod Browning
Screenplay:               Guy Endore, Bernard Schubert
Photography:              James Wong Howe
Editor:                       Ben Lewis
Art Director:               Cedric Gibbons
Associates:                Harry Oliver, Edwin B. Willis
Recording Director:     Douglas Shearer
Gowns:                      Adrian

Professor Zelen                     Lionel Barrymore
Irena                                     Elizabeth Allan
Count Mora                           Bela Lugosi
Inspector Neumann              Lionel Atwill
Baron Otto                           Jean Hersholt
Fedor                                  Henry Wadsworth
Dr. Doskil                              Donald Meek
Jan                                       Ivan Simpson
Chauffeur                            Franklyn Ardell
Maria                                   Leila Bennett
Luna                                    Carol Borland **
Sir Karell                              Homes Herbert
Innkeeper                           Michael Visaroff
** Carroll Borland's name is spelled Carol Borland in the credits, and
  in other publications is spelled Caroll

-->“Mark of the Vampire” was made at MGM studios in 1935.  Among the major studios, Universal was leading the pack in terms of horror in those days with Paramount probably a close second.  MGM was way behind and trying to play catch up with this film.  It is actually a remake of one of their silent Lon Chaney vehicles, “London after Midnight” from 1922.  That film has been lost for decades, but one can hope that a print may turn up someday.  “Mark of the Vampire” was MGM’s stab at duplicating “Dracula”, even to hiring the same director, Tod Browning.

Poster for "London After Midnight"

Right off the bat (or should I say, fake bat suspended by wires), let me say that this review will be full of spoilers.  It’s difficult to discuss this movie without giving away the big plot “twist”.  So if you have never seen the movie but plan to, and want to preserve the element of surprise, then stop now.  Actually, if you can make it through to the end of the movie without your head exploding, THAT will be a bigger surprise than the plot.

“Mark of the Vampire” is one of the most confounding movies I have ever seen.  The story is engineered with the precision of a watchmaker.  Unfortunately that would be a watchmaker who is all thumbs and the final product runs about as efficiently as a water-logged cuckoo clock.  Especially coming from a major studio, it contains more contrivances per frame of film than in any other silly flick I’ve seen.  Compared to this, the plot of “The Mummy’s Curse” (see elsewhere on this blog) looks like the pinnacle of crystal clarity.  

It is set in 1934 Czechoslovakia, (it’s original title was “Vampires of Prague”).  Wealthy Sir Karell Borotyn has been murdered, his body found with two small puncture marks on the neck and drained of blood.  The local doctor as well as all the villagers believe that this was the work of a vampire.  Sir Karrel’s best friend Baron Otto is the next door neighbor and now becomes guardian to Sir Karell’s daughter, Irena.   Inspector Neumann arrives from Prague to investigate the murder.  He doesn’t believe in vampires, and the inquest is inconclusive.

We move on to a year later.  Sir Karells’s castle has been empty since his death, since Irena has been living in the guardian’s home.  The villagers have a legend about vampires known as Count Mora and his daughter Luna.  Creepy characters have been seen lurking around the castle, presumably the vampires .  Bats are seen around the countryside, and the Count and Luna are seen in the shadows by the roadside frightening passersby.  Irena and her fiancé Fedor are about to get married.  Before the wedding can take place, Fedor is attacked.  He can’t remember what happened, but he has two bite marks on his neck.  The vampire has struck again!!  

Irena is attacked next.  Professor Zelen, an expert on the occult, is brought in to investigate the weird goings on, and by golly he recognizes the work of a vampire when he sees it.  He confides in the inspector and Baron Otto to help him defend Irena, and destroy the monsters. 

Professor Zelen (Lionel Barrymore - right)  pontificates to Inspector Neumann (Lionel Atwill - left), and Baron Otto  (Jean Hersholt - middle)

-->As the panic grows, the professor goes through the usual spiel explaining what vampires are, for anyone in the audience who still doesn’t know.  To make matters worse, Sir Karell has been seen walking in the neighborhood as one of the undead, much to Irena’s dismay.  The inspector is still skeptical, until he and Baron Otto find Sir Karell’s coffin empty.  They also peek through the window of the old castle and see Sir Karell, Count Mora and Luna acting all vampire-y.  They see Luna seeming to fly from the balcony down to the floor, just like a bat!

Luna nails her landing. 

-->As the professor leads his team into the castle to destroy the vampires, Irena is brought to the castle by Luna.  Irena breaks down at the sight of her father, saying she can’t go on with it anymore.  Now all is revealed to be a hoax which she is in on.  The inspired scheme was to create this vampire scenario and shock a confession from the Baron when he sees the “resurrected Sir Karell” – the man he is suspected of murdering a year ago.  Sir Karell is being impersonated by an actor, who just happens to look and sound exactly like the dead man.

The professor and inspector talk Irena into continuing with their carefully crafted charade.  Baron Otto has been hypnotized by the professor to compel him to replay the events of the evening of the murder one year ago.  Irena and  the phony Sir Karell act out their parts as the spellbound Baron arrives at the house and chats with the man he believes is his old friend.  He puts what he thinks are knock-out drops into Sir Karell’s wine and then bids his friend a warm goodnight.  After he leaves, Sir Karell drinks the wine and appears to pass out. The Baron re-enters and attempts to complete the murder.  His motive? – he wants Irena for himself.  He is interrupted by the Inspector, and the professor who brings him out of his hypnotic state.  They have trapped their murderer.  Whew!

We then cut to the final brief scene in a dressing room.  We see “Count Mora” and “Luna” taking off their costumes and makeup and congratulating themselves on a wonderful performance.  Their trunk is marked with the sign “Luna The Bat Woman”.  One of the actors is putting the props away, including the wings we saw Luna flying around with earlier.  They are actors who had been hired by the professor to impersonate vampires. 

Holy smokes!  That may have been long, but……hey!.... YOU try summarizing all that.  And this is only the barest outline of the convoluted plot.

Lionel Barrymore has star billing.  This very talented actor, who had many, many fine performances under his belt, plays his part as a combination of Groucho Marx and a community theater version of “Dracula’s” Professor Van Helsing.  Actually, his eyebrows do most of the emoting.  He raises and waves them like flags in shock, worry, scorn, anger or pretty much anything else.  He rocks back and forth on his heels as he belittles or talks down to his audience, or as he whips the servants and the Baron into a terrified frenzy as he yells at them to make sure a weed he calls bat-thorn is placed on every door and window.   He bobs up and down to demonstrate agitation, and throws his arms out and opens his eyes wide to register surprise.  His speeches go on at great length and usually turn around on themselves with circular logic.  Here is one small example:

Professor:  “During the hours of darkness the vampire can’t even be harmed, let alone destroyed.”
Inspector:   “If they can’t be destroyed then we are wasting time!”
Professor:  (shouting angrily)  “I DIDN’T SAY THEY CAN’T BE DESTROYED!!”

Well, actually you did.

This distinguished actor may have decided to just have some fun and earn a paycheck at the same time (the Sir Anthony Hopkins of his day).   Or, it may be that even though he was one of THE Barrymores -- brother of John and Ethel, the First Family of the American Stage and Screen, etc.-- he was just as capable as anyone of being a ham.  Or, it’s possible that he is overacting the part because he is playing someone who is playing a part – trying to convince Baron Otto that all this hogwash is true.  His hysterical performance might be a little easier to take once you realize the role he is really playing.  But frankly, it doesn’t make it any easier for me.  Edward Van Sloan as “Dracula’s” Professor Van Helsing is subdued and dignified and much easier to believe as someone who knows of what he speaks.

Donald Meek, Lionel Barrymore and Jean Hersholt

As happens so often in films and plays, the servants in our film exist primarily to provide comic relief.  The only problem is that they aren’t funny and are frequently very annoying, particularly the maid.  Actor Donald Meek who plays the cowardly, gullible local doctor is much more genuinely amusing.  He was in movies for twenty years until his death in 1946, and played countless roles.  His characters frequently could be described best by the actor’s surname.  Donald Meek is one of my favorite old-time character actors and his name in the credits is always welcome.

Another very welcome name is Lionel Atwill.  Here he provides his patented gruff disdain for simple-minded superstition.   Atwill had to have been in more horror films of the 1930’s and 40’s than any other actor.  He was always strong and stalwart whether playing a mad scientist (“Doctor X”, “Ghost of Frankenstein”, “The Vampire Bat”, "Man Made Monster"), the local inspector/mayor/etc. (“Son of Frankenstein”, “Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman”, "House of Frankenstein", "House of Dracula") or some other type of madman ("Murders in the Zoo", “Mystery of the Wax Museum”).  In addition, he showed off his comedic talent in the 1942 Jack Benny/Carole Lombard film “To Be or Not to Be”.

The name Jean Hersholt will be familiar to anyone who has ever watched the Academy Awards.  The Danish born actor was popular in both leading and character roles in everything from the villain in von Stroheim’s silent “Greed”, to the kindly small town Dr. Christian in the radio/movie/TV series named for that character.  He was presented with two honorary Oscars in 1940 and 1950 for his work in founding the Motion Picture Relief Fund.  The annual award for humanitarian work still bears his name. 

In “Mark of the Vampire” Hersholt does great work with a tricky role.  Most of the time Baron Otto appears genuinely honest and caring.  We see his other side as his face instantly changes from gentle warmth to cold ruthlessness when he unknowingly re-enacts the murder of his friend.  That moment could easily have been over-acted buffoonery, but he renders it with finesse.

Elizabeth Allan plays Irena with grace and intelligence, never playing down to the material.   Irena is a similar character to the heroine ‘Mina’ played by Helen Chandler in “Dracula”. 

Henry Wadsworth has the colorless, thankless David Manners-type role as the fiancé who is useless in a crisis.  He is often in a state of full or near unconsciousness.  His biggest contribution is to suggest that the best thing he can do for Irena is to take her away from all the danger as soon as possible, only to be shot down immediately by the irate professor.  The same scene was played out with the characters of Jonathan Harker and Professor Van Helsing in “Dracula”. 

Caroll Borland inhabits the role of Luna.  She was a teenager when she saw Lugosi in the movie “Dracula” and developed a crush on the much older actor.  She started a correspondence with him and they eventually met.  Borland landed a small role in a revival of the play, and spent a great deal of time with Lugosi becoming a close friend.  She has no lines as the vampire girl here; she speaks one line in the final scene as the actress.  Her vampire look – the white face and long, long hair-- has become iconic.

Elizabeth Allan as Irena, and Carol Borland as Luna

Bela Lugosi plays Count Mora.  Well, he plays the actor playing Count Mora.   He also has no lines until the scene in the actor’s dressing room.  Lugosi has the most delightful moment in the movie, as he swirls his cape around while announcing to the others that he was great in his role of the Count: “I gave ALL of me!”  His unimpressed actor colleagues respond to this by telling him to take off his makeup and help put the props away.  It’s a nice little touch of self-parody on Lugosi’s part. 

Bela Lugosi as Count Mora, looking particularly sinister

-->By the way, you notice a dark blotch on the right side of Lugosi’s temple?  That is a bit of plot that did not get explained in the final script.  Originally, Count Mora was supposed to have murdered Luna and killed himself with a bullet to the temple, after an incestuous relationship.  I can’t really imagine how that would have been handled in the film.  But I suppose it was too late to change Lugosi’s makeup, so Count Mora’s strange look remained a mystery.

Which brings me to the subject of how much of “Dracula” was ripped off by MGM in this movie.  Here are some bits that I have noticed which are either identical or very similar in both films:

  • The opening scene with villagers, including cooing baby in cradle, praying to protect themselves from the demons.
  • The local innkeeper explaining to the English travelers why it is dangerous to travel on their roads at night. 
  • Michael Visaroff plays the innkeeper role in both films.
  • As the Count and Luna descend the stairs in the creepy castle it is obvious that the set is almost identical to the Universal “Dracula” set. 
  • As they walk down the stairs, they appear to have walked through a huge cobweb without disturbing it, just as Count Dracula seemed to walk through a cobweb in his castle. 
  • In the castle we see shots of little critters --  bugs, spiders and possums.  Sadly, “Mark of the Vampire” has no armadillos.
  •  A scene between Irena and Fedor sitting on a divan near the terrace,  is very similar to a scene between Mina and Jonathan Harker in “Dracula”. 

Count Mora and Luna in "Mark of the Vampire"'s creepy castle
Castle in 1931 "Dracula"

And here are a few things that drive me nuts about the movie:
  • In spite of all the precautions and all the bat thorn on the windows and doors, the vampires come and go in the house at will.  Whenever the professor announces that the house is now safe, you can rest assured that it isn’t. 

Count Mora making himself at home

  • There is so much confusion in the house -- vampires showing up willy-nilly, the servants running in and out of rooms screaming, chopped up non-sequitor conversations held in different rooms – it’s more like a door slamming bedroom farce than a horror/mystery. 
  • The names Zelen and Borotyn are pronounced differently by different characters.  Borotyn is sometimes pronounced Baratin, BORotin, BoroTEEN, or BoRRRotin.  Lionel Barrymore prounounces it differently in each scene.  Continuity, please!!! 
  • The way the professor barks at everyone.  Most of the others are either "fools!" or "idiots!"
  • The castle is full of dust thick over everything, and cobwebs everywhere.  But a few minutes later when Irena and the fake Sir Karell are acting their part for the Baron, everything is tidy and spotless.  There were some very speedy cleaning elves at work there!
  • The actors playing Count Mora and Luna are CONSTANTLY living their parts, even when no one is around.  When the inspector and the Baron are peeking in the window they just happen  to catch Luna "flying" like a bat.  That is some precise staging.  Or else, Luna is flying around every few minutes, just in case someone is looking.  
  • Every single time, and by that I mean, every single time that we either see the creepy old castle, or the vampires no matter where they are, we hear a soundtrack of low moaning and groaning.  I suppose it is atmospheric and perhaps it is effective in a way.  However, I found it annoying after the first few times.  It reminded me of a very funny line from the movie "Love at First Bite".  Count Dracula, played by George Hamilton, is playing the piano in his castle.  Wolves are howling outside, very loudly.  He finally becomes so exasperated with the interruption that he yells at them:  "Children of the night!  SHUT UP!!"  That is what I wanted to say to "Mark of the Vampire".      
  • George Hamilton as Count Vladimir Dracula in "Love at First Bite"
  • The trick of draining the body of blood?  Easy!  Just use a pair of small pincers to make the holes, then hold a water glass above a flame, and then put the glass over the wound.  I'll let the professor explain the scientific principle behind this:  "the hot glass over the wound creates a powerful suction".  Really ??  And that glass is going to hold eight pints of blood?  Really??
  • There is a third vampire in the castle scenes.  He is not named, not identified nor referred to in any way.  He has no lines of dialogue, he is seen simply sitting or walking around. There were some scenes edited out of the final version of the film, so possibly he was explained in one of those bits.  However, never fear!  I may have this figured out.  In the movie's final scene the same man is playing one of the actors putting props away, so he must have been pressed into service to play a vampire in the professor's plot.  But who was his character?  Relax...I think I have that too.  During the inquest the doctor says that a farmer had been killed and that he saw the same marks on the neck of that victim.  So maybe this guy was supposed to be the undead farmer.  Or maybe I just need to calm down, pour myself a drink, and not think about it any more. 

(from left to right) Luna, "Sir Karell", unknown vampire guy, Count Mora

  • Even before the murder, villagers are talking about the vampires that haunt the castle.  So that would mean Sir Karell and Irena were living in their home with a bunch of vampires and never noticed it.  Or we are supposed to think that Baron Otto has been running around for months faking vampire attacks.  Or someone else was doing it.  Or maybe there was …..I give up.  I have a vision of all the writers on this movie (and there were quite a few) being locked up in separate rooms.  Each of them was told to write a page of script.  When all the pages were assembled they were thrown up in the air, and however they came down, that’s how the movie was shot.  

The thing about this movie that is much more than simply annoying or confusing is the lame, inexcusable device that the “vampires” are just actors.  That kind of trick would be unthinkable today.  But even in 1935 it had to be a disappointment to many in the audience. 

“Dracula” in 1931 was the first American talking horror film that did not have a logical non-supernatural finale.  It left us with the thought that vampires are very real.  Before that, Hollywood movies had reassured audiences that all was well and there was nothing that could not be explained.  The mystery could always be cleared up by showing us that the “monster” was some bad guy wearing a mask.  Horror films finally had started to grow up in 1931.   But “Mark of the Vampire” took a step backwards, treating the audience like children who need to be comforted at bedtime.  Phooey!!

MGM threw a lot of money and talent at this project in terms of director, photographer, production designer and actors. (I suppose you could look at this and imagine what Tod Browning could have done with “Dracula” in 1931 if he had the money and prestige of MGM behind him instead of Universal.)  In spite of the glossy look of the film-- it is beautifully photographed by James Wong Howe-- it remains one of the most disappointing, perhaps THE most disappointing movie for horror fans – old time horror fans at least.  The “twist” is so ridiculous it is insulting. 

However, if you can just sit back and watch it as a bit of movie history and not take it seriously; if you can think of it as a silly fairy tale, you might be able to enjoy it.  Having said all that, and this may sound unlikely, but I think that if you watch it for a second time, you will enjoy it more than you did the first time you viewed it. 

By the way, the funniest line in the movie is spoken by Inspector Neumann:

 "We all thought our vampire scheme was so simple, so certain of success.  We never thought we'd fail."

 Are you kidding???   “Inception” had a simpler plan. 

Obviously, if you have made it all the way through this review then you have either already seen “Mark of the Vampire”, or don’t care about knowing in advance a movie’s surprise ending.  But, as your faithful reviewer I promise to always let you know if there are any plot spoilers in what I write. 

Oh, by the way… Rosebud was his sled, Kevin Spacey was Keyser Söze, and Bruce Willis was already dead.  

1 comment:

  1. David Parr sent me a nice tweet about this movie:

    "Nice review! The movie has some great imagery, but it's such a dreadful potboiler. Saw it once; that's enough for 1 lifetime!"