Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Monster Serial: MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, 1935

Hello, boils and ghouls! October is upon us and that means one thing: HALLOWEEN! While most holidays get a measly day or two of formal recognition, orthodox Monster Kids prefer to celebrate it in the tradition of our people: By watching tons of horror movies. This month at THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY, we're going to be discussing some of our favorites every day until Halloween. So, put on your 3-D spex, pop some popcorn and turn out the lights .... because we're going to the movies! 


MARK OF THE VAMPIRE is an interesting film. On a technical level, it's the movie DRACULA (1931) should have been. But, like the following year’s THE INVISIBLE RAY (starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi for Universal), MARK OF THE VAMPIRE is a film which leaves many of its most interesting cinematic moments unseen, only heard about after the fact through dialogue. And what we do see doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

There are three variables that hold MARK OF THE VAMPIRE together on a ‘supernatural’ level: Cedric Gibbons' atmospheric production design; James Wong Howe’s evocative cinematography; and Carroll Borland’s haunting performance as Luna, whose visage has been the ground stone for all female vampires to come. Despite the film's “it was all a hoax” ending, these three people are the reasons we still come back to MARK OF THE VAMPIRE. Bela Lugosi’s presence as Count Mora helps too, but for my money its Gibbons, Howe, and Borland. Together each figure helps us be drawn into the convoluted plot and keep us engaged. There’s nothing more beautiful in the film than Carroll Borland wandering with a bat hovering nearby, through Cedric Gibbons’ fog drenched countryside listening to those “disembodied soul” howlings (I want that sound effect for my movies,) all captured by Howe’s constantly prowling camera. This is gothic cinema at its finest.

There are two other members of this company we need to address: Misters Lionel Barrymore and Atwill. They help us buy the whole plot on a realistic (though the term “realistic” is used loosely by me) level. The respected physician/occult expert and the inspector, both figures of authority and rationality, and both played by actors who can make any scene or line of dialogue work – (I mean, who doesn’t believe that Lionel Atwill’s arm wasn’t ripped out by Karloff in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN?) They believe the story of the vampires, even though both men are very much in on the hoax. And, for the first 50 minutes of the film's 61 minute running time, so do we.

Of course it’s all Count Mora and his daughter, and they’re obviously out to make Irena Borotyn (played by the underrated Elizabeth Allan) a vampire just as they did her father.

Right. Here’s where everything about ‘the plot’ of MARK OF THE VAMPIRE falls apart. It’s all been an elaborate “Mission: Impossible” hoax to get murderer Baron Otto (Jean Hersholt) to confess. But why go to such extremes when Jean Hersholt is barely around to witness half of the vampiric hoax? Why are you wandering around a deserted castle in the middle of the night with no one around? Why are you playing the organ and flying (in a fantastic shot) with bat wings – on the off chance that somebody might notice you? Are you that much of a ‘Method' actor? Are you just a plain attention whore caught up in the never-never land atmosphere of wherever MARK OF THE VAMPIRE takes place?

All of this brings us to a couple factors:

MARK OF THE VAMPIRE is a remake of the most famous of all lost films, the Tod Browning/Lon Chaney silent LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT from 1927, in which Chaney played both the vampire and a police inspector, which also combined the elements of the occult expert.  Because the film is lost, we can't say for sure if LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT also included moments in which the vampires do things for no apparent reason other than to act like vampires for the sake of the audience.But, we can safely assume that's the case. In 2002, TCM had film historian Rick Schmidlin ‘reconstruct’ the 1927 film using the original screenplay and stills from the project, distilling it into a 45-minute slide show that TCM hyped the hell out of. (You should have seen me with my VHS recorder, I couldn’t get the damn thing to record it fast enough I was so excited). So, for my take, I think a lot of this “why do it in the first place when no one is looking?” was there to begin with, and there’s nothing any of us can do about it. 

MARK OF THE VAMPIRE originally ran at 81 minutes, but 20 minutes were cut before it was released. What existed in those 20 minutes? Was it filled with more eerie vampiric activity such as Fedor (Henry Wadsworth in the role of the useless fiancĂ©e) being attacked by someone who might be a vampire as he was running for the train?  Was it a scene that explains the random other vampire who follows Lugosi and Borland around in the castle? Were there some moments that helped explain why the vampire actors are acting for apparently no one but the audience?

Or, even more tantalizing, was there a flashback scene detailing the history of Count Mora, his incestuous rape and murder of his daughter Luna, and subsequent suicide? (Note that random bullet wound on Lugosi’s temple.) Unfortunately, that doesn't appear to be the case. In Kim Newman and Steve Jones’ informative and entertaining commentary on Warner Home Video’s DVD of the film (paired with the also fascinating MASK OF FU MANCHU,) they claim the majority of the 20 minutes was comic relief featuring the maid Maria.

One final factor – supposedly the entire cast and crew played the film as a straight vampire horror film, not knowing the ending. They filmed in continuity of the script and, when they reached the climax, they were given the pages revealing the whole deal was a hoax ... which also supposedly annoyed Bela Lugosi. He suggested that his character should later reveal himself to be an actual vampire, providing a second twist. Now this seems plausible, but Tod Browning supposedly screened his earlier LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT for the whole company, which would have revealed to them the twist ending. Confused yet? Either someone couldn’t get their facts straight, or MGM’s publicity department was working overtime, or – who knows?

But who cares, really? MARK OF THE VAMPIRE has proven itself over the years as a great genre classic, a wonderfully atmospheric film with a great cast and only the production values that powerhouse MGM could provide – just perfect for Halloween viewing.

Ansel Faraj is an award-winning independent American film director, screenwriter, and producer. He recently wrapped production on his latest film, DOCTOR MABUSE: ETIOPOMAR.

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