"Mark of the Vampire" *** (out of ****)
"Mark of the Vampire" (1935) has the characteristics associated with a good-to-great Hollywood horror movie. It stars Bela Lugosi as a vampire and it is directed by Tod Browning, the man behind "Dracula" (1931), "Freaks" (1932) and the movie which "Mark of the Vampire" is based on, the silent Lon Chaney vehicle, "London After Midnight" (1927), which unfortunately is considered a "lost film".
But, something about "Mark of the Vampire" is a bit off. Movie lovers debate its quality because of a general agreement that the ending comes out of left field and discredits much of what was seen prior. I used to belong to that camp. I thoroughly enjoyed "Mark of the Vampire" right up until the final few minutes, which sets the movie in a different direction. Watching the movie again, I changed my mind. It is not that the ending doesn't bother me but, I simply enjoy so much of what it does before hand to not recommend it.
If you haven't seen "Mark of the Vampire" before, you are most likely wondering what the heck am I talking about. What is this ending? I cannot reveal it. It is one of those twist endings that only a bad friend would spoil. Yet, for movie lovers, its reputation proceeds it and its ending is well known.
The setting would seem to be Prague (the original suggested title of the movie was "Vampires of Prague") though a city is never mention however anywhere in Eastern Europe would do. The movie begins much the same way "Dracula" does. We learn the town is superstitious and afraid to go out after dark. Vampires are believed to have been cited. The local doctor, Dr. Doskil (Donald Meek) won't admit it, since he is a man of science, but he too is a believer. The villagers hang bat thorn (the equivalent of wolfsbane) on their windows to protect themselves.
On this night, Sir. Karell Borotyn (Holmes Herbert) is found dead. Nearly all are under the impression it was a vampire that killed him, as two marks were found on his neck and the body was drained of blood. The only person who refuses to believe this is Inspector Neumann (Lionel Atwil). He decides to bring Professor Zelan (Lionel Barrymore) on the case, because of his knowledge of the occult and to help prevent another murder, as Borotyn's daughter, Irena (Elizabeth Allan) may be in danger as well. Zelan immediately confirms the suspicion of all, as it was a vampire that killed Borotyn. The vampires are suspected to be Count Mora (Lugosi) and his daughter, Luna (Carroll Borland). Now it is up to all, including Irena's guardian, Baron Otto von Zinden (Jean Hersholt) to protect her from the vampires, while trying to find a way to kill them.
As I had mentioned, much of the movie will resemble "Dracula" and the appearance of Mr. Lugosi as a vampire will only further cement that opinion. However this time around the vampires does not speak. Count Mora and Luna are only seen as threatening figures, seen walking down hallways or peeking through windows.
Mr. Browning and "Mark of the Vampire" do a lot to keep up the suspense and create a good amount of atmosphere. The vampires enter frame out of nowhere, the visual aesthetic of the old castle and fog that fills the air, all help to keep us involved in the movie. Which is what makes the ending a bit if a disappointment, shifting in its tone. Mr. Barrymore's exaggerated performance doesn't help much either, as these two things combine give the viewer the impression "Mark of the Vampire" is a comedy, lampooning the horror genre and vampire movies in particular. The movie didn't need humor. As a vampire movie it worked well and one could forgive Mr. Barrymore's performance if not for the ending, If you have ever seen "Dracula" you'll know the Van Helsing character, which is essentially what the Prof. Zelan character is, was played serious. Mr. Barrymore, or Mr. Browning, for some reason saw fit to add humor to the character, which is in direct contrast to the other actors, who mostly play their roles in more dramatic fashion.
Still it is difficult to say who gives the best performance in the movie. Mr. Lugosi's role doesn't require an emotional range, and as such, it doesn't feel like much of a character. The same would go go for Ms. Borland. Ms. Allan is your typical damsel in distress, playing a role similar to Mina, in "Dracula". It is an average performance that in another movie may not have stood out but here becomes somewhat memorable. Mr. Atwill is his usual stiff self playing a role not unlike the many he would go on to play in various other horror movies, several at Universal as part of the Frankenstein franchise. Mr. Hersholt may be playing the most "complete" character.
But it is not the acting that would make me come back to this movie. It would be for the suspense and atmosphere. Though I hate to keep comparing it to "Dracula", which is a much better movie, it is along the same lines and must have been some sort of inspiration. Mr. Browning uses many of the same techniques for both pictures in the way he fills a frame and camera angles.
"Mark of the Vampire" may be difficult for some viewers to accept on first viewing but the movie does have its defenders, many stronger than me. If you are able to give the movie a chance and go in with an open mind, the movie will be enjoyable. Even if the logic of the ending doesn't make much sense to you, you have to admit the movie does so many things right. For me, not one of the great vampire movies but a good effort. If you've never seen "Dracula" I would start their first and then see this one.