Sunday, October 21, 2007

mark of the vampire (1935)

In celebration of Bela Lugosi's birthday yesterday, I decided to make my nightly horror haunt one from the Hungarian horror icon's fairly massive ouvre. From 1935, "Mark of the Vampire" re-teams Lugosi with "Dracula" filmmaker Tod Browning for a film that, though narratively somewhat slight, is technically quite innovative and full of smart, creative touches that speak to the underrated Browning's role of a cinematic innovator. Lugosi is third-billed here, after Lionel Barrymore and Elizabeth Allen, and a relatively small, but pivotal role as the titular vampire (or is he?) in his familiar "Dracula" garb, with the nice added touch of an unexplained wound on his temple. Lionel Atwill, also in many horror films of the era, plays the police inspector.

The film takes place outside of Prague in what may be then-present day, though the exact time period is unclear. Some characters dress modern, other more archaically. People ride around in horse-drawn carriages, yet the policemen carry fairly modern firearms. This dichotomy of time adds to the atmosphere, and indeed atmosphere is the main attraction in the film. Browning draws upon a plethora of creepy images. There are plenty of bats around, and bugs, owls, cobwebs and fog, empty coffins. In one scene, completely unexplained, a large white dog crosses the background. In another, characters are frightened when a cat crawls out of the helmet of a suit of armor, lending some credence to my theory that preoccupation with cats is often (though not always) a sign of a great artistic mind.

This film is perhaps well known for its weird twist ending, one of several unusual cinematic tricks employed by Browning throughout. Visually, he keeps things consistently interesting with foreground/background action (such as the aforementioned dog), camera movement and relatively fast-paced editing. Primarily active as a filmmaker in the silent era (he worked frequently with Lon Chaney Sr.), Browning is of course best known in the "talkies" for his "Dracula" and the brilliant "Freaks," but for whatever reason only made two more movies after this one, retiring from film in 1939 though he lived until the early 1960s. It's really a shame, because even in a film like this, which, at 60 minutes long, was probably considered a b-picture in its time, clearly had a innovative mind when it came to filmmaking, and could have done some pretty amazing things, I suspect, if he had continued working.

Lugosi only speaks one line throughout the entire film, though cleverly, it comments on his whole image as "Dracula" and his association with the role. This is certainly a very early example of that kind of self-referrentiality in films, and goes towards showing Browning's creativity. Browning also wrote the original story the film was based on, though the script itself was by Bernard Schubert and novelist Guy Endore, who also wrote Lew Landers' "The Raven" (also with Lugosi) and Karl Freund's "Mad Love" (with Peter Lorre).

I have no way of knowing for sure, but I think this also may be one of the first movies to ever show a Swiss Army Knife onscreen.

At only an hour long, this is well worth your time for the great images and Browning's small and clever touches, plus some great shot of Lugosi in all his spooky glory.

Until next time...

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