The bait-and-switch is one of the oldest con games going. Lure a target into thinking things are one way, and once you’ve got hook-in-mouth, switch the sitch. As Hollywood has never had an original idea, it’s no surprise that screenwriters started to graft the bait-and-switch onto films early in their history. Such is the case in MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, Tod Browning’s remake of his own LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT, which really functions as a fun, whackier remake of the director’s own DRACULA.
Browning’s MGM effort starts in familiar territory. It’s a dark, stormy night in a rural town overseen by a lofty castle. There are foreigners who want to travel at night, and superstitious locals who practically beg them to wait for daylight. Their rationale: vampires stalk the foggy night. Queue up some fog, bats and none other than Bela Lugosi, the world’s most famous vampire, accompanied by his daughter Luna. The murder of a wealthy local arouses suspicion, as all the blood has been drained from his body. The police inspector and the local government find the peasants’ cries of “Vampires!” to be silly, bred out of their ignorance. Especially because several actual people have real motives, mainly the man’s fortune. And yet, there are those vampires stalking the night…
From the outset, it’s evident that Browning is ripping off his much more famous DRACULA right and left. The opening scenes with the traveling foreigners and superstitious locals is emulated almost wholesale, as is Count Mora’s castle, down to the staircase with the giant spider web. I’m not sure if they replicated it on the MGM back lot, or drove down the block to Universal and stole the set. Either way, I’m shocked that MGM didn’t get sued over this. As the movie progresses, it continues to ape Browning’s first teaming with Lugosi through Professor Zelen, a loopy knockoff of Van Helsing. The classic Universal fog, the angular shots of crucifixes and tombstones, the vampires taking the form of bats and wolves, all steal unabashedly and unashamedly.
And then there’s Bela. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking that Lugosi had played Count Dracula something like 50 times. Alas, he only officially portrayed him twice: first in DRACULA (1931), and then 17 years later in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. But let’s face facts. In those intervening 17 years and beyond, he played Dracula a number of times. Later efforts such as MY SON THE VAMPIRE mocked both Lugosi and Dracula, but MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, only four years out, presents both actor and character in all their graceful horror. Lugosi could have played this role in his sleep, but he endows Mora with a silent eeriness that pervades the film, even when Mora isn’t onscreen.
MARK OF THE VAMPIRE does add some new elements to the story, the best of which is Carol Borland as Mora’s vampiric daughter Luna. With her pale skin and long, dark hair, she’s the forerunner for every female from Vampira to Elvira to every Goth chick who ever walked the mall. Silently stalking human prey for blood alongside her father, Luna is a creepy creature of the night. Borland and Lugosi are an excellent pair, and though this isn’t an iconic horror movie, you’ll likely find that you are familiar with the iconic shots of them together. It must have been tempting for writer Guy Endore to stick dialogue into their mouths, especially given Lugosi’s distinguishable voice, but he does wise to leave them silent, but for a few lines at the very end.
The rest of the cast is a showcase of gleeful scenery chewers. Lionel Atwill plays yet another of his many police inspectors, brandishing the role and his moustache as the unbeliever. As Zelen, Lionel Barrymore acts like Van Helsing’s caustic, wild eyed brother. His best parts are when he insults the rich family’s help, treating them like they’re miles below him and his superior intellect. These two pros obviously know this isn’t exactly the most profound horror script. So they play it as a send up, which actually raises the material. Elizabeth Allen plays Irena, the deceased man’s daughter. I’d like to question why so many of horror’s lead actresses in the 1930s spoke in that shrill, airy tone she applies here. Were they directed to do so, or was it just a popular fad? Either way, it gets on my nerves (especially since the lead actress in 1932’s DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, which I had watched right before MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, used the same exact vocal technique). There’s also Jean Hersholt as a baron in charge of the estate who is a key figure in the plot later on; and Henry Wadsworth as a useless love interest for Irena (though I got a kick out of how he keeps getting bitten in the neck). But this is Lugosi and Borland’s movie, even if they’re not actually on screen that much.
If this sounds like a movie you’d dig up to this point, I heed you to remember my discussion about the old bait-and-switch in my intro. For 50 of its 60 minutes, this is a story about a vampire count and his undead daughter stalking peasants and the local aristocracy in a rural town in Czechoslovakia. Then the switch comes along, and I surmise it’s going to make a lot of horror fans mad. This is the second bait-and-switch flick I’d watched in two days (I also highly recommend the other, Albert Band’s I BURY THE LIVING) but I would have been prepared for it anyway, because John Landis ruined the ending for me.
You see, Landis did the commentary over MARKS OF THE VAMPIRE’s trailer on Trailers from Hell, and blurted out the switch. Fortunately, I have a high capacity for watching movies and blocking out information I already know (a very useful skill when you want to keep fresh your favorite horror flicks). But if you go in blind to the switch, you very well may hate it. Folks sure hated the switch for I BURY THE LIVING. It’s turned me off in the past when flicks have done this to me. Here, though, I didn’t mind so much, if only because this movie is so goofy to begin with. I won’t divulge the ending to you, because spoiling just isn’t my style, but I will tell you if you hang through it, it may actually enhance the movie for you. It did for me.
I never trust anything I read on the IMDB or Wikipedia, but apparently, this was a much longer movie that lost 20 minutes or so of footage. Some of what was lost is crucial to understanding fully what is going on. For instance, Mora’s back story supposedly had him committing incest, then strangling his daughter and shooting himself in the head (the gunshot wound is the only thing that truly distinguishes him from Dracula). Sometimes less is more, but if I’m to believe these rumors, less isn’t more at all in this case. Fans may also take pleasure in MARK OF THE VAMPIRE being the closest we’ll ever get to a full version of Lon Chaney’s LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT, which was lost in a studio fire in 1967. As I was born in 1972, I can’t attest to that, but taken on its own, MARK is a lot of fun, and I highly recommend it for classic horror fans, even if it falls short of being a classic itself.
As long as there are writers who like to twist viewers’ minds with fare such as THE CRYING GAME and FIGHT CLUB, the bait-and-switch will exist in films. MARK OF THE VAMPIRE is a classic case of this classic con. Don’t let the ending dissuade you from seeing Browning and Lugosi bring back the great Count Dracula, in a loopier film that’s actually quite a bit more fun than DRACULA itself.
Enjoy the trailer without John Landis ruining it for you: