Sunday, July 12, 2020

Tod Browning’s Mark of the Vampire

We always assumed vampire legends were silly superstitions, but in the age of coronaviruses, it may very well be that an aversion to bats was a survival instinct hard-wired into our DNA. Bela Lugosi and Tod Browning did more than their share to stoke those primordial fears. Four years after the classic Dracula, they returned to the blood-sucking well with Mark of the Vampire, which airs on TCM this Friday.

Sadly, Sir Karell Borotyn dies one fateful night, but the only apparent cause are two small bite marks on his neck. You know what that means. So does the cowardly Dr. Doskil, but Inspector Neumann of the Prague police thinks all the rustic locals’ vampire talk is just a bunch of rubbish, even though the recently deceased Count Mora and his equally dead daughter Luna have been seen prowling around. However, he starts giving the rumors some credence when both Borotyn’s daughter Irena and her fiancĂ© Fedor Vincente suffer similar bite marks. The Van Helsing-like Prof. Zelen confirms their vampire suspicions and starts organizing a defensive campaign (“bat-thorn” instead of wolfsbane).

Mark has a twist that a lot of fans absolutely hate, but it has been ripped off anyway in dozens of subsequent films. It is not nearly as elegant as the original Dracula, but Mark still has plenty of entertaining skulking through graveyards. The great James Wong Howe’s black-and-white cinematography has the classic atmospheric look that made the monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s so darn cool. This was actually a case of Browning remaking himself, but his original silent film, London After Midnight (starring Lon Chaney) is now considered lost.

Obviously, it is shame that we are missing out on Chaney Sr. in a horror setting, but the cast of Mark also includes several legends. Lugosi was probably frustrated by his lack of dialogue, but his scenes with Carroll Borland (playing Luna) are arguably just as iconic as the original Dracula (you can clearly see their influence on Plan 9 from Outer Space, for what that’s worth). Lionel Atwill (who later tried to enforce the law with monsters on the loose as the Inspector in Son of Frankenstein) is rock solid playing the skeptical Neumann.

However, Lionel Barrymore’s commandingly snappy work as Zelen really stands out. Arguably, Barrymore outdoes Edward Van Sloan in the vampire-hunting department. It is a shame he didn’t do more horror movies, because he is terrific in this one.

Mark of the Vampire is short, gimmicky, and tons of fun. This is old-school spookiness (cobwebs and organ music), all the way. Highly recommended for the look and the cast more than the spotty narrative, Mark of the Vampire is one of several Browning films airing Friday morning (7/17) on TCM.