Hot on the heels of his “31 Days of Hammer” in January, his “31 Days of British Horror” in March and his “31 More Days of British Horror” in May, Jules is travelling across the pond this July with… you guessed it… 31 Days of American Horror!
Director: Tod Browning
Starring: Lionel Barrymore, Elizabeth Allan, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Jean Hersholt
There’s not many films that lose it so badly in their final act as Mark Of The Vampire. There’s so much to love in Tod Browning’s return to the Nosferatu concept, in that’s it’s beautifully shot, with an often gripping plot, albeit one with a hazy, dreamlike atmosphere and features a uniformly strong cast.
It’s was essentially a classic on the making, if it wasn’t for one of the worst endings in horror history. An ending so bad that it taints every repeat viewing by flagging up how little it makes sense. What were they thinking?
When Sir Karell Borotyn (Holmes Herbert) is found murdered in his house, with two tiny telltale wounds on his neck, Dr. Doskil (Donald Meek) and Sir Karell’s good friend Baron Otto (Jean Hersholt) suspect he was killed by a vampire, with Count Mora (Bela Lugosi) and his daughter Luna (Carroll Borland) being the most likely candidate, although Prague police inspector (Lionel Atwill) is more rational and discounts what he believes to be mere superstition.
The Count targets Borotyn’s daughter Irena (Elizabeth Allan) as his next victim, so Vampire and occult expert Professor Zelen (Lionel Barrymore) is called in to help both save the young girl and destroy the vampires once and for all. Or is he?
Okay, let’s focus on the good first. This looks incredible, it really does. Browning takes the cobwebbed gothic castle that he brought to life so well in Dracula and just goes nuts with it here, with every inch covered in webs, dust and decay, alongside his signature unusual animals kicking around. We’ve got bats obviously, both effective and less so, some disturbing crustacean/arachnid hybrid crawling along in the filth and is that a cheeky possum? On its holidays to Prague? Fair enough.
It all just adds to the dream-like atmosphere conjured up by Browning, who favours hallucinatory ambience over direct chills and slow, creeping unease over obvious frights.
Bringing Lugosi back as a vampiric count is clearly a great idea, even if he doesn’t get much screen time. He’s much more reserved here, quieter and more alien, giving him a little more gravitas than his more famous bloodsucker. Don’t ask why he appears to have a bullet hole in his head though, as it’s a victim of some hefty cuts to the script. They’re some debate as to what it was meant to be about, but there’s at least a consensus that it was from before he was turned and was self-inflicted after he murdered his daughter Luna.
Ah, Luna. Alongside the Bride who made her screen debut only a week before, she’s one of the first iconic female horror stars and steals absolutely every scene she’s in. No small feat when most of them feature Lugosi in a cape no less.
She moves with a weird grace, which only adds to the dreamlike ambience, hell she looks like she’s sleepwalking herself as she glides through the grounds of the mansion, in the best possible way obviously, while her transformation from Bat to human is one of the finest effects shots of the decade.
Best of all is the incredible scene where she hypnotises Irena before attacking her, all while her father looks on, smiling and clearly proud, like a predator animal teaching its offspring to hunt. It’s wonderful stuff.
The rest of the cast is uniformly strong too, with the ever-dependable Lionel Atwill and Lionel Barrymore giving a different kind of Vampire hunter. There’s no stuffy academic in sight here, he’s rough, gregarious and has the delivery of a man who you suspect is never far from a hip flask.
So a near-classic then, until that bloody ending. I won’t spoil it here, but it’s that level of stupid that will have you throwing something at the TV. It’s trite, it’s directly contradicted so many times by what we’ve just watched and possibly worst of all, it just doesn’t take the whole thing seriously at all. It’s insulting frankly, both to us as viewers and the actors who had to deal with it.
This could have really been something special and it’s a credit to how strong the rest of it is that it’s still such an enjoyable watch for the majority of it. But man, what a wasted opportunity.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy