Mark of the Vampire (MGM 1935)
Mark of the Vampire (also known as Vampires of Prague) was released on the 26th of April 1935, and starred Bela Lugosi, Lionel Barrymore, Elizabeth Allan, Lionel Atwill, Jean Hersholt and Carroll Borland (billed as Carol Borland).
It was directed by Tod Browning as a talkie remake of his silent Lon Chaney classic, London After Midnight (1927), and has always divided audiences because of its twist ending, having the vampires turn out to be actors, working with the police to catch a murderer.
A publicity shot with Bela Lugosi, Elizabeth Allan and Henry Wadsworth for Tod Browning’s Mark of the Vampire (MGM 1935)
Browning claimed to have kept his cast in the dark for most of the shooting schedule to preserve realism, a fact which reportedly irritated Bela Lugosi, who begged the director to let him play a real vampire. In the end, so many writers laid hands on the screenplay that there was considerable mayhem and confusion, and a particularly quirky plot, with numerous inconsistencies of storyline and continuity. Critic Mark Viera wrote that MGM cut out suggestions of incest between Count Mora (Lugosi) and his daughter Luna (Carroll Borland), as this was an unacceptable topic according to the standards of the Production Code. The original screenplay explained that Count Mora was condemned to eternity as a vampire for this crime, shooting himself out of guilt. After the cuts, the final version of Mark of the Vampire shows him with unexplained blood on his right temple.
Undead line-up: (From left) Carroll Borland, Holmes Herbert, James Bradbury Jr and Bela Lugosi in Mark of the Vampire (MGM 1935)
With or without this premise, the plot throws up more questions than it answers. Mark of the Vampire is undoubtedly an extremely enjoyable film to watch, with Browning trampling all over the Dracula (1931) gimmicks but this time doing them properly. We have Count Mora and Luna walking through the giant cobweb, leaving it curiously undisturbed (even more curious given the twist ending!), the swooping bats, scurrying spiders and spurious wildlife inhabiting the castle. Even Michael Visaroff all but recreates his role as the innkeeper, adding the style over substance touches that make this a far superior production to Dracula.
Lionel Barrymore takes on the role of Professor Zelen, a surrogate Van Helsing who runs rings round the stilted performance of Edward van Sloan’s original nemesis and brings a rather camp humour to the role. It seems as if Barrymore had an inkling that the plot premise is false, as he delights in almost over-egging the part, deliciously sending it up without ever mocking it. The superb interaction between his character and that of Lionel Atwill’s Inspector Neumann make the film utterly compelling, working far better than the intended but miscast comic relief in the form of Leila Bennett as the perpetually spooked maid.
Bela Lugosi and Carroll Borland preside over James Bradbury Jr in Mark of the Vampire (MGM 1935)
Great performances also come from Elizabeth Allan, who is a much more believable hero than her foppish, rather wet boyfriend played by Henry Wadsworth, and Jean Hersholt as the homicidal Baron Otto, hypnotised by Barrymore into recreating his crime. One wonders why the astute professor didn’t merely resort to this tactic in the first place, thus cutting to the chase without the need of undead assistance, but thankfully he didn’t and we still get to revel in the exploits of the cadaverous Lugosi and Borland. Holmes Herbert gives his usual, stylish delivery as the actor playing the murdered Sir Karell Borotyn, and then there’s the creepily effective ‘third vampire’, who seems to be present more for dressing than anything, but is extremely effectively played by James Bradbury Jr.
Carroll Borland is suitably creepy as the ethereal Luna, especially in the scene where she swoops into the castle like a bat, a highlight which purportedly took three weeks to film. Why it was included, apart from as a show-piece, is unclear – the plot twist means that all this trouble was gone to in a scene where Luna is playing an actress, with only the other actors in on the scam present, so one wonders for whose benefit it was performed.
An original campaign book for Tod Browning’s Mark of the Vampire (MGM 1935)
Further confusion arises from the huge cuts to the final release version, reducing it from 80 minutes to a mere 60, and resulting in some performances being cut in their entirety. Among its plaudits, Mark of the Vampire can claim to be one of the first known examples of the ‘cat scare’, a horror film trope in which there is a strong build up of tension followed by a scare from a harmless cat; this occurs early in the film when Dr Doskil (Donal Meek) and Jan (Elizabeth Allan) are frightened by a cat hiding in a suit of armour.
Notwithstanding all its flaws and conflicts, Mark of the Vampire remains a satisfying, reasonably lavish MGM production. Although Lugosi had more lines in the trailer than the actual film, he delivers his final address with aplomb, sending himself up beautifully in a way which most of his critics would not give him credit for.
Mark of the Vampire saw Browning at last forgiven by MGM for Freaks (1932), and it gained him much more freedom for The Devil Doll (1936), but alas it was all too late. His career was on the wane, and Mark of the Vampire proved to be one of the last, true greats from this troubled Hollywood giant.