Tod Browning is known to most movie fans as the director of the classic Universal horror film Dracula. The seminal Bram Stoker tale is not Browning’s only foray into the vampire mythos, however; four years earlier, in 1927, Browning made London After Midnight with Lon Chaney, and four years after, in 1935, Browning essentially remade the same movie with his Dracula star Bela Lugosi, calling it Mark of the Vampire.
Mark of the Vampire is set in a Czechoslovakian town that has a vampire problem. The locals stay inside at night and hang a plant called Bat Thorn over their doors to protect themselves from the “Demons in the Castle,” a vampire tribe led by Count Mora (Lugosi) and his daughter, Luna (Carol Borland from Scalps). When one of the town’s noblemen, Sir Karell Borotyn (The Uninvited’s Holmes Herbert), is found dead, drained of blood with two tell-tale marks on his neck, the rest of the town figures that the vampires got him and his daughter, Irena (The Haunted Strangler’s Elizabeth Allan), moves in with her guardian, Baron Otto von Zinden (Jean Hersholt from The Mask of Fu Manchu). Irena and her fiancé, Fedor Vincenti (Henry Wadsworth from The Thin Man), continue to be harassed by Count Mora and Luna, until finally Police Inspector Neumann (The Vampire Bat’s Lionel Atwill) calls in an occult expert by the name of Professor Zelin (Key Largo’s Lionel Barrymore) to help deal with the vampires. As they dig deeper into the mystery, Neumann and Zelin learn more than they wanted to know about the vampires…and Karell’s death.
After the success of Dracula, Tod Browning almost killed his career with the controversial Freaks. A talkie remake of one of his earlier silent films was quite literally the only film that the director was allowed to make, so he, along with screenwriters Guy Endore (The Curse of the Werewolf) and Bernard Schubert (The Mummy’s Curse), changed a few event here and combined a couple of characters there, and London After Midnight became Mark of the Vampire. As a vampire movie, it seems like a spoof, with the bloodsuckers more amusing than frightening. It’s still a highly entertaining film, with a twist ending that, depending on how the audience views it, either makes the film or cheapens it. Either way, Mark of the Vampire is a fun supernatural mystery that remains an important piece of film history.
One of the reasons that Mark of the Vampire is important is because of its star, the inimitable Bela Lugosi. Throughout his career, Lugosi played roles that were iconic (Dracula, The Black Cat) and not-so-iconic (Phantom Ship, The Black Sleep), but his performance in Mark of the Vampire is unusual, even for him. Lugosi seems to be playing a caricature of himself, with Count Mora being a less-articulate version of Count Dracula. For most of the film, Lugosi wanders the set, casting devilish stares at the other characters and becoming more of a passive observer than a threatening antagonist. For this reason, the entire film comes off as a parody of Dracula or, more accurately, a parody of Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein (in which Lugosi reprised his role as Drac), since there are several areas of almost slapstick-style comedy in the film. There’s even a “cat scare,” a red herring tension-breaking device that would become a staple of horror films in the years to come, particularly in the slasher genre. Whether intentional or not, Mark of the Vampire seems to satirize horror movie stereotypes, making it an especially fun watch for educated fans of the genre.
The visual effects in Mark of the Vampire don’t help it look like less of a satire, either; they are all rudimentary and cheap-looking in-camera effects that appear to have influenced future low-budget filmmakers like Ed Wood and Roger Corman. While some real bats are seen sporadically in the film, most of the flying bats are obviously props on strings. In one scene, Count Mora changes from a bat into his human form by way of a slow fade, the bat disappearing while Mora gradually solidifies in its place, fiercely glaring at the camera. In what is probably the most elaborate scene in the film, Luna flies into the castle and lands next to Mora and the other vampires, the vampire-daughter sprouting wings and sliding down from the ceiling on what looks like a harness-and-rope system. The effects in Mark of the Vampire make it look like a true B-movie, even though it was made before B-movies were even a thing.
There is another version of Mark of the Vampire, only shown to preview audiences, that is rumored to be 20 minutes longer than the film that is readily available. Reportedly, the initial audience reaction to the movie reflected the opinion that it was too long and moved too slowly, so the studio heads at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer trimmed about a quarter of its length and Browning, with little credibility because of the financial flop of Freaks, could do nothing to stop the butchering of his movie. The missing footage theory would explain many of the plot holes and curious decisions that plague Mark of the Vampire like the lack of spoken dialogue by Bela Lugosi (he has more lines in the trailer than he has in the actual finished movie), the abrupt appearance of Professor Zelin, and the mysterious bullet wound that exists on Count Mora’s temple. In the alleged process of making a more streamlined film, the studio seemed to have created more questions than Mark of the Vampire is able to answer.
Unfortunately, the last remaining print of Tod Browning’s London After Midnight was destroyed in the MGM Vault Fire of 1967. Luckily, plenty of copies of Mark of the Vampire still exist for the enjoyment of horror fans and films historians alike.