Directed By: Tod Browning
Starring: Lionel Barrymore, Elizabeth Allan, Bela Lugosi
Trivia: Large South American bats were imported for the picture
A remake of 1927's London After Midnight, a Lon Chaney film that has apparently been lost to the ages, Mark of the Vampire reunites director Tod Browning with star Bela Lugosi, who previously worked together on the now-classic Dracula. A return of sorts to the role that made him famous, Lugosi once again dons a vampire's cape, but what you'll remember most about this movie, aside from its atmosphere, is the twist ending. Without going into too much detail, let's just say that, in Mark of the Vampire, nothing is as it seems.
Sir Karell Borotyn (Holmes Herbert) has been murdered, and a pair of vampires: Count Mora (Lugosi) and his daughter, Luna (Carroll Borland), who have taken up residence in Borotyn's former home, are believed to be his killers. Fearing a similar fate may befall Borotyn's daughter, Irena (Elizabeth Allen), noted vampire specialist Professor Zelen (Lionel Barrymore) teams up with Inspector Neumann (Lionel Atwill) to uncover the truth about what's happening, and before long, the two make a startling discovery.
Though the story is, at times, a muddled mess (due, in large part, to a slew of unnecessary characters), the cast that Browning assembled for Mark of the Vampire is impressive. Aside from such seasoned veterans as Atwill, Barrymore, and Lugosi, we have newcomer Carroll Borland, who gives an eerie performance as the female vampire, Luna. But what truly stands out is the film's incredible atmosphere. Browning, with the help of cinematographer James Wong Howe, transforms the Borotyn estate and its surroundings into a living nightmare, complete with mist-covered graveyards and crumbled buildings. It seems the ideal spot for a couple of vampires to hang out, and the fact that the undead characters stay in the background for most of the picture only adds to their mystique (neither Lugosi nor Borland speak a single line of dialogue until the film's closing moments). On a scale of 1 to 10 on the creep meter, Mark of the Vampire registers a solid 9.5.
Unfortunately, the movie's twist ending (which I won't spoil for you) is a total cheat. In fact, it's worse than a cheat; it's an insult, and makes no sense whatsoever. That Browning tried to pass this "reveal" off as a legitimate conclusion to the story is an absolute joke. Yet, as terrible as it is, this ending doesn't ruin all that came before it. Ultimately, Mark of the Vampire is effective for 90% of its running time, which, when compared to most movies, isn't bad at all.