When the body of Sir Karell Borotyn is found slumped over his desk, drained of blood, locals fear it is the work of vampires Count Mora (Bela Lugosi) and his daughter, Luna (Carol Borland) who stalk the castle grounds by night. Cantankerous Inspector Neumann (Lionel Atwill) dismisses this outlandish theory and begins questioning suspects Fedor Vincente (Henry Wadsworth), who stands to inherit a tidy sum after he marries Borotyn’s daughter Irena (Elizabeth Allen), and Baron Otto (Jean Hersholt), Irena’s new guardian and executer of her estate. At Count Mora’s command, Luna starts making nightly visits to nibble Irena’s neck, prompting the Inspector to call Professor Zelin (Lionel Barrymore), an expert in the occult. Zelin confirms there are vampires at work and draws the Inspector and Baron Otto into the hunt. Ah, but nothing is quite as it seems.
Mark of the Vampire was Tod Browning’s remake of his own silent horror classic, [FILM[London After Midnight (1927). There the “vampire” and detective were played by the great Lon Chaney. Here the role is split between three actors: hammy Lionel Barrymore, blustery Lionel Atwill and the incomparable, Bela Lugosi. Like Christopher Lee in the later Hammer Dracula movies, Lugosi is less a character in this movie than an iconic presence, drawing upon the public’s familiarity with his greatest role. Whereas Browning’s Dracula (1930) is creaky and slow moving, Mark of the Vampire zips along with exciting incidents and spellbinding set-pieces. Archetypal images like fog-shrouded graveyards, cobwebbed castles, creepy bats and wolves are wondrously photographed by James Wong Howe, with the magical highlight being Luna descending through the air on batwings. Elizabeth Allen makes a solid heroine, but the movie’s truly iconic figure is twenty-one year old Carol Borland (Rita Hayworth reputedly screen tested for the role). An eerie, erotic presence (her ghostly visits to Irena carry a certain frisson), Borland is one of the first great lady vampires, and probably the best until Barbara Steele arrived on the scene.
Browning tweaks his horror formula to incorporate more knowing humour (a suit of armour seems alive and spooks Donald Meek’s jittery doctor), reflecting where the genre was heading with Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and The Cat and the Canary (1939) - movies that were clever, scary and funny. He offers a new twist on vampire lore with the Bat Thorn, a plant used to ward off evil, but this all plays second fiddle to the movie’s, proto-M. Night Shyamalan, Big Surprise Twist. The actors, who didn’t receive the final script pages till late into the shoot, had been playing it straight and weren’t best pleased with Browning’s “gimmicky” ending. The original story concludes with Count Mora committing suicide after killing his daughter, with whom he had an incestuous relationship. All traces of incest and suicide were omitted from the final cut, although you’ll notice Lugosi retains an unexplained head wound. In spite of the third act u-turn, the trap lain for the real murderer carries a fair amount of tension, and the way everyone goes along with Zelin’s outlandish plan makes the movie even weirder. Always a good thing. Bela Lugosi delivers the last line with a flourish: “I was greater than any vampire!” He sure was.