Hey, did you know that Tod Browning made a vampire movie in the 1930s? And that it starred Bela Lugosi as the titular vampire? And that said vampire was doggedly pursued by a professor with knowledge of vampires that stretched credibility? Oh, and did you know that I’m not talking about Dracula?
Since you’ve read the title above, I’m guessing I didn’t just make your head explode. But you can see where I’m going with this. The similarities between Browning’s quintessential vampire film and his 1935 not-so-quintessential vampire film Mark of the Vampire would make it seem like the latter is a pretty blatant attempt by MGM to cash in on his bloodsucker success. But is that indeed the case?
Well, let’s look at the premise for Mark of the Vampire. Although set in “modern day” early 20th century, the setting certainly looks familiar. The small eastern European town is unnamed, but if I had to guess, probably ends in “-sylvania.” The residents of the town tend to tread carefully at night lest they cross paths with Count Mora (Lugosi) and his band of fanged fiends. These very same creatures top the list of suspects when Baron Otto (Jean Hersholt) finds the body of local lord Sir Karell Borotyn (Holmes Herbert) with puncture holes in his neck and not a drop of blood left in his body. Although local Inspector Neumann (Lionel Atwill) is skeptical about the bloodsucker theory, they bring in vampire expert Professor Zelen (Lionel Barrymore) to stop Mora before he targets the lord’s daughter, Irena (Elizabeth Allan).
So, yeah, it seems an awful lot like Browning and company were trying to make a buck. I can’t say I blame Browning, who was virtually persona non grata in Hollywood after his previous film, Freaks, was mired in controversy and even banned due to its content. The film, which features a cast of people with various genetic mutations playing a group of circus performers, didn’t seem to be criticized for Browning’s poor treatment of the actors (which I certainly can blame him for), but rather for the dark material in the finished product.
The production for Mark of the Vampire wasn’t without its problems, either. In fact, if I’m being honest, the internet wormhole I traveled while reading up on the film made for more entertaining content than what wound up on celluloid. Even though it seems as though the film was pulling from Dracula, it’s actually considered a remake of another of Browning’s films from the silent era, 1927’s London After Midnight.
Word from the crew was that it was a tough set filled with long hours and complaints from Browning about the cast’s performance. He’d often compare everyone’s work to Lon Chaney (the star of the 1927 film), and when you’re being compared to someone who was famous for painfully contorting his face into all manner of ghoulish-looking features for the sake of his craft, you’re bound to pale in comparison.
I thought the performances were fine, but overall the film doesn’t really give us anything interesting. It’s only 60 minutes long, and somehow it still seems to drag. Rumors abound that an original 80-minute cut screened for audiences included elements such as implied incest and suicide. In fact, this alleged content is said to actually explain the eponymous mark on Mora’s temple as a gunshot wound that he inflicted on himself before he became a vampire. There’s some debate as to whether or not any of this footage actually exists, as the general consensus seems to be that while these elements may have been in some versions of the script, none of it was actually shot. But I do find it a bit odd that in the 60-minute cut, they never bother explaining the mark at all.
Most of the film is decidedly unremarkable, to the point where there were moments while watching it that I found myself wondering if I even wanted to write about it. But then Browning threw me a curveball, and it’s one that in order to talk about, I’m going to have to dive into not one, but THREE movies.
As it turns out, the entire vampire angle to this movie is malarkey. Professor Zelen hired a group of actors to pose as vampires in an attempt to lure out who he suspects to be the real killer, Baron Otto. Using what one might say is tenuous logic, Zelen believes playing out this vampire scenario makes Otto more susceptible to being hypnotized into believing he’s back with Sir Borotyn on the night of his murder, and they can get him to attempt to inadvertently recreate the murder on a body double and catch him in the act.
As I put the explanation to paper, I realize how implausible it really is, but I still think Browning’s playing an interesting trick here by relying on his audience’s familiarity with Dracula to throw them off the scent of his twist ending. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a satire (although critics have done just that) because I don’t necessarily think Browning is poking fun at his previous film.
It’s more of a misdirect, and it’s a technique that future directors would also use to their advantage. Andrew Fleming cast Jennifer Rubin fresh off Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors to star in 1988’s Bad Dreams, a movie that features a burnt killer who apparently kills people in their dreams. Robert Zemeckis pulled a fast one on us in 2000’s What Lies Beneath by casting perennial hero Harrison Ford in the movie.
Mark of the Vampire relies on a trick play in the third act and neglects much of the first two acts, but while it may not be a great film, Mark does make for an interesting artifact of ’30s horror cinema that gives a peek behind the curtain in a business that, even in its early days, had studios resorting to remakes and finding ways to mine literal and metaphorical pay dirt from the collective awareness of previous work.