In the small village of Vioska in Czechoslovakia…
Sir Karell Borotyn is found dead in his study – his body completely drained of blood. He has two small wounds on his neck. The local doctor, Doskil, immediately suspects that this is the act of a vampire, a fear that runs rampant throughout Vioska. Dr. Doskil makes a case for
his suspicions to the coroner and the town’s Inspector, Neumann, but both men dismiss him.
Not long after Karell’s body is found, the remains of a local farmer are found in the fields near an abandoned castle that everyone believes is inhabited by the living dead. The farmer too was drained of his blood and has puncture wounds on his neck. Still, the coroner and inspector chuck the entire business of vampires off to ancient superstition. This is 1934, for crissakes!
Some time later Irena Borotyn, Sir Karell’s daughter is attacked in the night. Irena survives, but she suffers strange delusions and has puncture wounds on her neck. Clearly, she is under some type of spell. Unable to solve the murders, Inspector Neumann summons Professor Zelin who has vast knowledge of vampires and the occult. The inspector remains skeptical about the attacks being the result of the supernatural, but it doesn’t take long for the Professor to confirm Dr. Doskil’s diagnosis – VAMPIRE!
“A corps by day. At night it leaves its coffin to sustain its unnatural life on the blood of the living.”
By the time Professor Zelin confirms that vampires are behind the sinister acts, we have seen the beasts in action. Count Mora and his daughter, Luna have been prowling in the night right under
everyone’s noses and/or Irena’s balcony. It is while the house is inhabited with law enforcers and vampire experts that Luna bites and hypnotizes Irena. The Count and his daughter are known by the villagers to be the ones who’ve stalked, bitten and sucked their way through time, casting fear across the land.
Professor Zelin puts a plan in place to ward off the vampires so that they don’t come back for more Irena blood and make of her a creature of the night. Included in the protection package is the ever-reliable vampire repellent, garlic and the bat-thorn plant, which is similar to wolfsbane but offers protection against vampires (in this movie alone as best I can determine).
Adding to everyone’s fear is the fact that Sir Karell is now a vampire too, joining forces with Count Mora and Luna. Left with no other recourse, Professor Zelin decides the vampires must be destroyed once and for all, lest they become a “pestilence that continues to grow.” He explains that in one, clean stroke the head of the vampire must be severed and bat-thorn placed in the gaping wound. It’s the only way.
“There is no more foul or relentless enemy of man in the occult world than this dead/alive creature spewed up from the grave.”
But wait! Is the Professor’s vampire destroying plan the only way to thwart the evil that lurks among the citizens of Vioska? Well, an unexpected twist is in store and I have no intention of spoiling it.
Directed by Tod Browning, Mark of the Vampire is one of the few horror films Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) made after the fiasco that was Browning’s Freaks in 1932. Freaks had not only bombed at the box office, but MGM chief Louis B. Mayer saw it as an embarrassment of a movie. According to biographer, Scott Eyman it was well-known that Mayer loathed horror movies and was never interested in making them at his studio. The response to Freaks didn’t help. It had been MGM
wunderkind Irving Thalberg who’d rallied for horror after seeing the success those films brought to Universal Studios.
In any case, as a result of the apparent paranoia after Freaks, producers at MGM chopped up Mark of the Vampire in fear it too would embarrass the studio. According to IMDB the original version of the script included a back story that explained a wound on the side of Count Mora’s face that is never addressed in the film as it now exists. The story goes that the Count had died of a self-inflicted gun shot wound to the head after having had an incestuous affair with his daughter. Reportedly, MGM deleted all
references to both the suicide and incest after filming began and got rid of all filmed references to either after the previews.
Whether it was due to the inclusion of controversial topics in the script or not, the version of Mark of the Vampire that is now available shows definite signs of tampering. The film runs 61 minutes while the original preview reviews list a running time of 80 minutes. 19 minutes worth of deleted material results in a narrative with noticeable gaping holes. These include isolated scenes that have no apparent ties to the rest of the story – like shots of the vampires lurking in the abandoned castle smack in the middle of conversations elsewhere. Perhaps the most obvious example of the hack job is when the character of Professor Zelin appears out of nowhere. Without preamble or introduction – diagnosis VAMPIRE!
It’s hard to believe, but despite its obvious flaws Mark of the Vampire is delightfully entertaining. A remake of Tod Browning’s own 1927 silent, London After Midnight, Mark features lavish sets and gorgeous lighting. The latter is not a surprise given the film was photographed by the great, James Wong Howe. The visual effects in the movie span from the effective – vampires turning into bats and back again – to the ever-entertaining, cheesy variety. I happen to enjoy them all – from the (really obvious) rubber spider to the grinning rodent. Then there’s Bela Lugosi, whose appearance in Mark is a reunion with Browning who’d directed the actor in his most famous role, Dracula, four years earlier. Watching Lugosi as a vampire is never a waste of time. It’s worth noting that there’s little to distinguish his “look” here from his Dracula aside from the open gash on his face and the fact he has no dialogue at all except for a very brief, albeit enjoyable, exchange at the very end. Needless to say, I would have loved Bela to play a more substantial role in the movie, something that would have required him to do more than lurk in the shadows and stare his Dracula stare. But it’s not surprising he wasn’t allowed to speak in character here because Universal Studios would have objected. Had Lugosi spoken as Count Mora this MGM release would have stepped all over Dracula territory – one of Universal’s most prized possessions.
The rest of the impressive Mark of the Vampire cast is also worthy of mention. My grandmother’s idol, Lionel Barrymore plays Professor Zelin, Lionel Atwill is Inspector Neumann, Jean Hersholt is Baron Otto, Donald Meek is Dr. Doskil, Elizabeth Allan is Irena, and Carol Borland plays the Count’s dead/alive daughter, Luna. You can take a look at the entire cast and crew list here. There are many other recognizable character actors who make an appearance, a few of which are very funny. Not unlike other classic horror movies, there’s a lot of comedy strewn about Mark of the Vampire. In fact, due to the editing issues mentioned above its difficult to say for certain whether the film actually take itself seriously.
I hadn’t seen Mark of the Vampire until recently and am sorry I didn’t watch it sooner. If you’re interested in taking a look, it is available in HD on Warner Archive Instant. That’s how I ran into it – yet another new-to-me classic found through the archives at Warner Bros.
Timely, very timely. Good one, Aurora.
I watched this on Instant the other day, too, though I had a markedly different opinion on it afterward. Because of all the cuts, the film’s setup stunk like stink water. I wasn’t surprised by the twist, only stunned with the lame hypnotism angle that seemed wholly unnecessary. Between the way the ending pulled the rug out of the film’s horror element and the supreme goofiness of Devil-Doll, you can really feel MGM’s disdain for the whole genre radiate out like heat from the sun.
I can’t say I disagree – except I found it very entertaining. I’m not sure if it’s that I go in with low expectations. Lugosi’s last/only line made me giddy. It’s a real shame MGM destroyed it – no doubt the pieces here are much better than the whole.