Friday, November 18, 2016

The Mark of the Vampire

The Mark of the Vampire is so telegraphic in its presentation, so concise and succinct, that, if you blink, you will miss key plot points and be completely baffled by the narrative.  This exceptional brevity (the film clocks in at about 60 minutes) is characteristic of Universal Studios horror films from the decade of the 1930's.  Apparently, the studio felt that no one should be forced to endure fear in the darkness for more than about an hour -- and, indeed, this hour should also contain some sentimental romance, a little slapstick comedy, and some humorous byplay between veteran character actors.  Tod Browning directed The Mark of the Vampire and the difference between his nonchalant and brusque approach to the material (and that of fellow Universal director, James Whale) is about as remote from the way something like HBO's Westworld is directed as can be imagined.  With Westworld, you can leave the State, even the country, and pick up on the show after missing two or three weeks and the plot will have advanced only marginally -- sure lots of stuff will have happened; you will have missed out on loads of gratuitous sex and violence involving minor characters, may even have been deprived a chance to see a tangential subplot develop, climax, and resolve itself, but the main trajectory of the story will have moved forward only by a couple of small incidents.  By contrast, if you went out to get popcorn during The Mark of the Vampire and missed three minutes of the film, you would likely be completely confused by the twists and turns the plot took in your absence.  I watched the hour long film from beginning to end and parts of it were so disorienting I had to run the film back on the DVR to figure what had happened.

In The Mark of the Vampire, a Balkan grandee of some kind is found dead, two pinprick incisions in his throat, and drained of blood.  Everyone is this neck of the woods believes in vampires and, indeed, several of the monsters have been recently sighted.  A vampire-slayer like Van Helsing is brought in to diagnose the problem and kill the monsters -- this character is played by Lionel Barrymore in his most grandiose mode.  Midway through the movie, we see Bela Lugosi and his pale daughter wandering like sleepwalkers through a dismal castle infested with scurrying rats, spiders, and beetles -- the place is hung with nets of cobweb through which Lugosi and the girl plow their way, descending dark and Gothic stairs to a tomb below the ancient fortifications.  There are a number of close-ups of Lugosi and he is genuinely frightening in this film, less a Continental seducer than a terrifying, if stately, living corpse on the order of Nosferatu.  And Lugosi's daughter is very disquieting -- she has strangely feral and asymmetrical features; indeed, she actually looks something like a bat with glaring eyes and a funny, ill-shaped nose.  We also see her in big close-ups and these images are terrifying to the point that you want to look away -- with her waist-length black hair and stark white face, the woman also looks like an animated corpse.  Some detectives appear at the castle and the film takes a remarkable and startling twist in its last three minutes.  Browning has fooled the audience -- the film is not about vampires but about solving a weird murder.  In the last shot, we see Lugosi and his unearthly daughter packing away their horror gear in a trunk that advertises them as a traveling troupe of actors.  Lugosi tries to make a joke and sputters indignantly, as if in recognition that the plot isn't even faintly believable, and his corpse daughter smiles wanly -- they want to persuade us that the vampire stuff was just an act.  But I'm not persuaded and, in fact, unless I was hallucinating, in one swift and alarming shot, I saw the corpse-girl actually cavorting in the dust of unhallowed graves with bat wings on her shoulders.  The curious thing about this little, and oddly defective, film, is that when it is displaying its supposedly ersatz and phony vampires to us, they are scarier than the real thing in Browning's earlier Dracula

The Mark of the Vampire is not coherent.  Lugosi appears with a huge bloody wound on his brow, something never explained by the story.  Apparently, in the 80 minute version, there was an implication that Lugosi became a vampire after committing incest, a "monstrous crime" with his daughter.  This Byronic theme was too much for the censors and they forced Browning to cut out the explanation for the gory-looking wound.  This sort of editing creates some of the makeshift surrealism, the dream-like ambience, that we sense in these early sound-era horror films.  (And, another point is worth mentioning:  Browning's 1935 picture is a remake of a lost silent version produced in 1926 and set in London.  This film pulls the same scam on its viewers:  Lon Chaney's vampire is, in fact, a cunning detective setting a trap for a murderer.  The earlier version was lost in the 1967 fire in the Universal vaults -- William Everson, the silent film historian, saw both pictures and said that the 1935 version was actually the better of the two.)

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