In a very superstitious, rural corner of Czechoslovakia, the inhabitants fear vampires and ward them away using black thorn branches that grow in the area. On the eve of his daughter Irena’s (Elizabeth Allan) wedding to Count Fedor (Henry Wadsworth, Applause) Sir Karrell Borotyn (Holmes Herbert) is found dead. Dr. Doskill (Donald Meek, Stagecoach) believes him the victim of a vampire as he has two bite marks and his body is drained of blood. Inspector Neumann (Lionel Atwill, Night Monster), sent from Prague to investigate, does not believe this superstitious nonsense. Baron Otto Montay (Jean Hersholt, The Mask of Fu Manchu) is made the guardian of the devastated Irena, and she moves to live with him. A year later, when she is ready once again to marry Count Fedor someone attack him near the now deserted Borotyn castle. Inspector Neumann sends for vampire expert Professor Zelen (Lionel Barrymore, The Devil Doll) to get to the bottom of this. Count Mora (Bela Lugosi, Black Friday) and his daughter Luna (Caroll Borland), are seen around the house and Elizabeth is attacked by Luna. Soon Neumann, the nearly mad Zelen and Baron Montay are trying to protect Elizabeth from the vampires-and stop Count Mora and Luna from claiming her. But is everything what it seems?
The Mark of the Vampire was MGM’s answer to Universal’s extremely successful Dracula, and a remake of 1927’s famously lost London After Midnight. Tod Browning directed all three films. Browning was in hot water with MGM due to the box office failure of his previous film, Freaks, and so the studio mandated cuts to the film, including twenty minutes cut after the film’s premiere. The result is that Bela Lugosi only speaks at the end of the film, and Count Mora and Luna’s back story-that the Count committed suicide (and presumably killed Luna) after having an incestuous relationship with her-is never explained. We therefore only know that there are vampires, and these are two examples of them-and that Count Mora’s forehead has an unexplained wound. Beyond this, though, the cuts don’t harm the story, and the plot makes sense and runs by quickly.
Barrymore’s take on the vampire hunter is an interesting one, moving away from the confidence and intensity of n Van Helsing figures towards a more maniac, almost comedic role. Lionel Atwill is at his best as a stodgy but reliable inspector who believes all of this is nonsense, and Hersholt is good as the cowardly Baron. The younger romantic leads are acceptable and a little less bland than actors in their roles usually are, but the comic-relief servants, so common in horror films of this vintage, are in full effect-we get an overacting butler (Ivan F. Simpson, The Uninvited) and another in a long line of hysterical maids. The film is uneven, with some wonderfully atmospheric scenes with the vampires in a cemetery, the deserted castle and the Baron’s garden that surpass those accomplished by Browning in Dracula, but others where goofy special effects, such as bat and spider puppets, take down the mood a bit. There is one excellent scene of Luna flying about a room on bat wings. The film also features some interesting and rarely used pieces of vampire folklore, such as the branches, decapitation as the preferred method of killing, vampires that can only be harmed in the day and (although cut from the final version of the film) vampires who arise not from a bite, but due to dying in a state of mortal sin, a fairly common vampire belief in Catholic countries. The suicide as vampire is rare in film, but one other example is the 1950s vampire Western Curse of the Undead.
Browning pokes fun at his own previous hit, as Professor Zelen is a manic, crazed figure who seems to assume that the people he is commanding believes what he believes without much proof. The trio of vampire fighters are completely incompetent, and the ending finally reveals why: there are no vampires, and it is all a set-up by Zelen and Neumann to expose the Baron as the murderer of Sir Borotyn. At the climax, when our vampire killers seem to have not only lost Elizabeth to the fiends, but are themselves trapped within the castle just as darkness descends and the vampires become invulnerable, Zelen hypnotizes the Baron and makes him reenact his crime. It’s an unfortunate and unbelievable twist after we’ve seen the vampires materialize from bats, and if the film followed the ending to its logical conclusion it would prefigure later, darker vampire movie endings where the vampires actually win. Instead we get a typically cheesy “no, it wasn’t the supernatural” ending that could come from any number of Old Dark House films, or even Scooby-Doo.
Mark of the Vampire is an interesting, if flawed vampire film, interesting not only because it is Tod Browning’s only other surviving vampire story, but for its deviations from standard film vampire rules and moody atmosphere. Tod Browning, film history and vampire fans should find it interesting; Lugosi fans may be disappointed that Bela only gets a few lines at the end that parody his image.
The trailer, with far more spoken lines by Lugosi than the actual film:
The full film, on YouTube: