Directed by: Tod Browning
Written by: Guy Endore & Bernard Schubert
Starring: Lionel Barrymore, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill & Carroll Borland
Reviewed by: Brett H.
Plot swerves are one of the primary reasons we enjoy films and without these twists and turns along the way, there'd be no Hollywood movie. Or if there were, it probably wouldn't be a good one. No, a twist isn't necessarily essential but genre films in particular lean on these surprises to send a jolt into audiences they never saw coming. Greasing the wheels and creating good buzz by means of conversation, these elements of the plot are a main reason movies like The Usual Suspects, The Third Man or The Sixth Sense are well remembered and ice the cake on countless others, like The Beyond and dozens of low rent slashers. With twist comes risk, and sometimes the result can be a real drag to one, yet great to others. Mark of the Vampire has always been a thorn in my side since reading a spoiler in a book years ago leading me to be very apprehensive about seeking it, despite the fact that Bela Lugosi dons the cape once again as a bloodsucker. You can't knock it until you try it, though, so here goes nothin'. If you're super picky about spoiler hints, turn away, this one can't be discussed without giving away a few secrets.
Local villagers, rich and poor, refuse to stay out past dark due to the terrors of Count Mora (Bela Lugosi) and his daughter Luna (Carroll Borland), who live in a secluded castle nearby. Branded as demons, vampires by the locals, Mora, Luna and their minions certainly look the part and when an aristocratic family starts waking up dead with bite marks on their throats, the superstition is all but confirmed. Mora and his fanged friends must be stopped at all costs in broad daylight while they rest in their coffins. A brave group embarks on a trek through the haunted castle's walls and their chance to seemingly destroy the sect is called off in favor of hypnotizing one of their own, sending the plot into a tailspin!
Mark of the Vampire is a brisk experience at merely an hour in length, but anti-climactically drops in the final quarter. In a twist that would probably sit easier with others than with myself, the tone takes a drastic transition from supernatural horror to murder mystery. Truthfully, it isn't terrible, but I have never liked being purposefully misled into a twist that springs up out of nowhere. I prefer the kink to be an unexpected spiral in a story we have believed in that is enhanced because of its relevance to the narrative we've enjoyed. Andy Dufresne in Shawshank prison had one helluva twist that works divinely in terms of the total picture, but how would you feel if at the end ol' Andy was just a character in a broadway show? If you groaned a bit there, then chances are you're gonna turn your nose up to Mark.
In terms of gothic horror, it is a shame the film flip-flops at the end because it hits as much as it misses with a second to none castle setting that is superlative for fans of the classics. It's straight out of Dracula with giant cobwebs, rats, huge spiders, a dank old castle and smokey transformations - with Dracula himself, Bela Lugosi leading the charge along with director, Tod Browning! Unfortunately for those who are hoping to relive the 1931 classic, Lugosi is kept mute for much of the movie, as is the rest of his clan. This leads to some pretty bland vampires, but some great special effects work makes up for it, including a transformation shot where Luna descends from flight with giant bat wings that vanish as she lands on two legs to solid ground.
MGM released Mark of the Vampire alongside five other features in the Hollywood's Legends of Horror DVD set and the print looks great for such an old film, starting off a little grainy, but cleans up really nice. The audio fares just as well for a mono track. It's too bad Mark of the Vampire didn't do the right thing and add another twist on top of its big one and firmly root itself in horror. What we're left with is a so-so effort with a touch of humor that can be summed up with Browning taking his film one twist too far or one twist too short, depending on how you look at it. There's only one thing I wholeheartedly agree with in the film, Bela Lugosi is definitely "greater than any real vampire!" Rent it!
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