The first time I saw Tod Browning’s 1935 opus Mark of the Vampire I was bitterly disappointed by it. It wasn’t what I was expecting, and it wasn’t what I wanted. Seeing it again I’m more inclined to be tolerant of it. You just have to accept that it’s not a horror movie, it’s really a movie in the tradition of The Cat and the Canary, a mystery with some horror trappings. And it’s essentially a comedy.
If you accept those things then even Lionel Barrymore’s performance becomes almost bearable. It is of course a remake of Browning’s lost silent film London After Midnight. Browning seems to have been quite attracted by the idea of combining comedy with horror. His last movie, Miracles for Sale, follows a similar formula (and is quite fun).
It’s impossible to say very much at all about the plot without revealing spoilers. In 1935 somewhere in central Europe a nobleman is murdered, apparently the victim of a vampire. But things are not what they seem to be.
Lionel Atwill and Lionel Barrymore have a good deal of fun in their respective roles. Bela Lugosi’s performance is in effect a parody of his own performance in Dracula, and Lugosi shows considerable flair in sending himself up. Carol Borland looks suitably bizarre and iconic and her appearance is one of the more memorable features of the movie. James Wong Howe’s cinematography is one of the movie’s great strengths. It’s an MGM movie, so it’s a fairly glossy kind of horror movie.
I have mixed feelings about Tod Browning as a director. His work is remarkably uneven, and I have the impression that unless he was very enthusiastic about a project he had a tendency just to go through the motions.
I’m still not a great fan of this film, but if you accept it for what it is there’s a certain amount of enjoyment to be had. It does make you realise why MGM were not renowned for their horror films! In fact MGM were responsible for some of the worst horror movies in history, their 1941 version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde being arguably the absolute worst of all time.