Mark of the Vampire has some of the spookiest touches of any horror film. Bats, rats, beetles, spiders, a wolf, a crab, an owl, even a possum are scuttling about. Not to mention a spider-webbed, a very foggy graveyard, an adjacent mausoleum, and the centerpiece castle to encompass the darkest of deeds.
Bela Lugosi and Carroll Borland, as the father/daughter Count Mora and Luna, are convincingly ghostly vampires. The wind-whistling music permeates all of this atmosphere, with the bat-into-vampire metamorphoses a marvel of special effects–for any era.
The plot involves a triangle of sorts. John Hershott’s Baron Otto, as Irena’s guardian, has a cunning way to steal Irena’s (Elizabeth Allen’s) fortune away from her and her intended, Feodor (Henry Wadsworth). By taking advantage of the locals’ superstitious nature, he can make the murder of Irena’s father, Sir Karell (Holmes Herbert) look like the work of a vampire. Count Mora, conveniently, becomes the suspect vampire.
But the Inspector (Lionel Atwill) and Professor Zelin (Lionel Barrymore) subsequently hatch an even more cunning scheme to entrap Otto. Many reviewers on this site feel that the movie’s plot is hacked up, due to considerable editing/cutting. Well, that’s true; it would’ve been even more creepy with the supposedly incestuous subplot left in. Also, the hysterical maid seemed like she was from a different, more light-hearted movie.
The plot does leave some loose ends, to say the least. If the Count and Luna are just actors, why are they assumed to actually be vampires by the community? Some people might be taken in, but it’s inconceivable that the actors are ‘in character’ all the time.
The metamorphic scenes that are so well executed unfortunately don’t make sense. Unless we’re seeing these scenes from a gullible character’s point of view, they break up a logical chain. Maybe the cut-out scenes make some sense of this. Perhaps inadvertently, the cool transformations imply that the Count and Luna are vampires, and are pretending to be actors. At least it would explain why most of the locals believe that they are the real deal.
The plot’s confusing, but thought-provoking. Otto’s hypnosis is a nice touch, literally letting the action go back in time. Short of a confession, it’s really the only way to corner Otto. Another liberty that plot doesn’t mind taking is using a substitute Sir Karell (actually the same actor, Herbert). He ultimately makes the hypnosis scene work; and the faux Sir Karell can also be trotted out as an undead victim of the Count to frighten Otto.
But Sir Karell’s continued presence uncovers another logic issue: why wouldn’t Otto suspect that a hoax is in progress? After all, Otto knows he killed Karell. Therefore, Otto could only see Karell if the Count really is a vampire, or at least that Karell is a ghost. In any case, he’s suitably shocked by the vampire business, thanks to Lionel Barrymore’s Professor Zelin.
Barrymore and Lugosi are masterful here, both arch and commanding; Barrymore with a mad-scientist zeal, Lugosi with his special-effects enhanced otherwordly demeanor. Atwill’s performance injects some needed skepticism to this menagerie of characters.
I had to watch this three times to check what I thought I saw, and I’m still not sure I didn’t miss something. Despite the flaws in logic, Mark of the Vampire cleverly blends horror with a murder mystery. It’s so visually powerful that you could probably turn the sound off and still have an entertaining experience. 8/10.