Following the longest movie showcased in 31 Nights of Horror this year with the shortest one. At a tidy 60 minutes, Mark of the Vampire has no time to beat around the bush. Director Todd Browning had previously directed Dracula (1931) and Freaks (1932) as well as the infamous lost film London After Midnight (1927) starring Lon Chaney. Mark of the Vampire is a talkie remake of London After Midnight, though it does not credit the older film or writers at all. It does, however, exist, which is more than can be said for The Cat Creeps (1931), the talkie version of The Cat and the Canary (1927) that outside of two minutes of footage is entirely lost. The reason often for these older films being lost has to do with studios discarding movies they no longer felt could be re-released. This hurt silent films especially, but it was not the fate of London After Midnight. A studio fire at MGM destroyed it and hundreds of other movies. An effort was made to reconstruct London After Midnight, but it, like many other short films, is likely gone forever. Along with the reconstruction, Mark of the Vampire is one of the only ways to get a glimpse and understanding of what that lost film was truly like.
But enough about the film we’re not talking about today. Let’s delve into the plot of Mark of the Vampire, shall we? We arrive at a mansion where Sir Karell Borotyn (Holmes Herbert) has been found murdered. The bite mark of a vampire can be found on his neck, and everyone but the police inspector (Lionel Atwill) believes the murderer to be the legendary Count Mora (Bela Lugosi) and his vampire daughter Luna (Carroll Borland). Together with Professor Zelen (Lionel Barrymore), the inspector must work quickly to prevent more people from falling under the vampires’ spell.
In a number of ways, this movie resembles Dracula. There’s the aforementioned Browning connection as well as Lugosi starring in both as a vampire count living in Eastern Europe where the locals are all highly superstitious. The castle setting where Mora resides resembles Dracula’s domain with its Gothic architecture and cobwebbed-covered halls. Professor Zelen is a stand-in for Professor Van Helsing, a man who is knowledgable in all things vampire. However, where Edward van Sloan’s Van Helsing in Dracula feels confident and wise, Lionel Barrymore plays Zelen with a manic energy that makes his demands about placing the bat-thorn plant at all the doors and windows seem almost as ridiculous to the audience as the inspector. The movie affirms Zelen’s theories and belief in vampires with scenes of Mora transforming from a bat into human form and Luna descending into the castle mid way through transformation.
The vampires in this are awesome despite not having a ton to do. They don’t have any lines, but Lugosi and Borland both possess hypnotic stares and haunting presence that allow them to steal the spotlight away from the speaking cast. The movie also will randomly insert a shot of Mora scowling at nothing in particular or wandering around the mansion as a reminder to the audience that he’s around. It ends up being rather silly and ineffective since there’s no consequence to these moments, but it does make the vampire characters feel more present in the plot than they really are.
Like White Zombie (1932), Mark of the Vampire is best when it’s conjuring eerie atmosphere. There isn’t a score playing over the movie, but it fits some moody organ playing into a couple key scenes. It is the exterior scenes, however, that really work wonders. Crickets chirp and unseen animals cry their ghostly cry as the wind whistles through the trees. From an auditory standpoint, this soundscape is divine, vintage horror, the kind of backdrop fit for a DIY haunted house attraction at Halloween. Most of the time, the scenes outside involve the vampires wandering silently about the woods. In one particular instance, Luna hypnotizes Irena (Elizabeth Allan) and draws her out onto the patio. Without a sound, Luna descends upon her and feasts upon her blood while Mora stands by and watches approvingly. Music can do a lot to amplify horror and suspense, but it’s scenes like this that prove that music is hardly necessary to produce a thoroughly chilling effect.
To discuss the movie further, I must get into spoilers. If you don’t want your experience spoiled, stop here. I even moved the “Return to Hub Page” button up here just for you. That was nice of me, wasn’t it? For those who have seen this movie already or don’t care about spoilers, scroll on…
In the final ten minutes, the movie unravels. As it turns out, most every major character is involved in a scheme devised by Professor Zelen to get Baron Otto (Jean Hersholt) to confess to committing the murder of Sir Borotyn. The vampires aren’t actually vampires, but paid actors. The inspector, daughter, butler, and a man who looks exactly like Borotyn are all involved. The attempt to get a confession doesn’t work, and Plan B involves hypnotizing Baron Otto and have him relive the night of the murder. Looking at it after the fact and seeing how effective Zelen’s hypnotism is, it leads one to wonder why they even devised such an elaborate plot in the first place. It doesn’t seem necessary and took a year to put together. Granted, the coroner was a superstitious chap who concluded the only possibility was that Borotyn was killed by a vampire, but it’s such an absurd notion in what is otherwise a natural world. There is a legend of a vampire in the area, but this is the only murder like this. Besides, they probably could’ve detected he was drugged, right?
Moreover, this revelation renders everything we’ve seen with the vampires moot. These two must be method actors with their level of commitment to the part. There are scenes where they’re the only people around and they are walking around like zombies. Then you remember that you saw Count Mora transform from a bat into a human in the hallway. We saw that as an audience! How does that get explained? My first impression was that these actors were actual vampires, which would be a fine double twist, but no! They’re just regular actors. Browning had rejected a different ending where this double twist did occur, and both Lugosi and Borland were disappointed by the final decision and rightly so. It feels like the movie cheated. It’s not earned because it’s not believable.
That being said, however, the movie does end with an amusing scene of Bela Lugosi gloating about how great of a performance he gave and that he’s better than any real vampire. It’s a bit of levity and somewhat redeems the final act’s questionable creative decisions. Outside of that misstep, Mark of the Vampire continues Todd Browning’s streak of great horror films. It’s moody and boasts some eerie moments. The acting is uneven, but veteran actors Barrymore, Atwill, and Lugosi easily carry the film. Hell, it’s hard not to love any movie where Lugosi gets to dawn a cape and be a bad guy, whether it’s working with Todd Browning or Ed Wood. Truly, he is greater than any real vampire could ever hope to be.