Mark of the Vampire/The Vampires of Prague (1935) *
As I mentioned back in my review of The Return of the Vampire, Universal was inexplicably slow to capitalize fully on the success of Dracula, leaving the field open for other, rival studios to do the cashing in for them. MGM’s Mark of the Vampire/The Vampires of Prague is a remarkable example of the phenomenon, in that it not only features Bela Lugosi playing a vampire who is his famous interpretation of Count Dracula in all but name, but also has Dracula director Tod Browning running the show. The Browning-Lugosi pairing is, if anything, even less effective here than it was in 1931, and the result is a mercilessly dull, ineptly edited film with an acutely offensive cop-out ending that gives it the flavor of an old episode of “Scooby Doo, Where Are You?”
The setup, though it may not have been at the time, is now painfully familiar. Fedor Vincente (Henry Wadsworth) has come from Prague to the nearby country village where his fiancee, Irina Borotyn (The Haunted Strangler’s Elizabeth Allan), lives. He arrives after dark, and all the neighborhood peasants are busily locking themselves up in their homes, apparently in order to escape the depredations of a pair of vampires that are said to inhabit the area. All in all, not the cheeriest way to begin the night before one’s wedding, but much worse is to come. Irina’s father, Sir Karell Borotyn, is discovered dead in his office by the household help the following morning. And wouldn’t you know it, the town doctor finds no sign of injury anywhere on Sir Karell’s body apart from two small puncture wounds on the side of his neck. Police inspector Neuman (Lionel Atwill, from The Vampire Bat and The Mystery of the Wax Museum) has little use for the doctor’s diagnosis that Sir Karell was the victim of a vampire attack, but he seems to be alone in his skepticism. His inquest is forced to conclude that the man died of causes unknown, and to leave it at that.
A year goes by, though not so you’d notice had one of the characters not explicitly said so in a sterling example of how not to write expository dialogue. The Borotyn castle has fallen into disrepair, and it would seem that a pair of vampires have set up shop in its ruins. The question of where Count Mora (Lugosi) and his daughter Luna (Carroll Borland, who pretty much dropped out of sight after this, then suddenly reappeared in Scalps and Biohazard 50 years later) had been living before is never addressed. They have to have been in the neighborhood, though, because every illiterate rustic for miles around knows who they are. Anyway, the Moras seem to have been behind Sir Karell’s death, and they begin making pests of themselves in a big way a year later. They also seem to have it in for the Borotyn family in particular. Both Fedor and Irina are attacked, though not fatally, and a man who looks distinctly like Sir Karell soon shows up prowling the village streets by night as well.
Enter Professor Zelen (Lionel Barrymore, of It’s a Wonderful Life fame, whose earlier appearance in the 1929 version of The Mysterious Island is not nearly so famous). Zelen is Mark of the Vampire’s Van Helsing figure, and he sets to work trying to bring Inspector Neuman around to his way of thinking almost immediately upon his arrival on the scene. He meets with little success, even after he shows the inspector that Sir Karell’s body has gone missing from its crypt, but the two men begin a close collaboration on the case nevertheless. They are soon joined by Baron Otto von Zinden (Jean Hersholt, from The Phantom of Paris and The Cat Creeps), who as Irina’s legal guardian under Sir Karell’s will, has a very strong interest in seeing the situation resolved. But it becomes increasingly obvious hereafter that all is not as it seems. Zelen and Neuman begin acting as though they have some sort of secret, one that Irina may be in on as well. For example, for a Fearless Vampire Killer, Zelen is awfully reluctant to kill vampires; when he, Neuman, and Zinden find Sir Karell reposing in Castle Borotyn’s cellar, the professor actually stops Zinden from beheading him, on the highly suspicious grounds that the vampires must all be destroyed simultaneously, so as to protect the village from reprisal. Indeed, a person could be forgiven for thinking that Zelen is actually trying to protect the vampires from the baron.
And in point of fact, that’s exactly what he’s doing. Count Mora and his daughter, you see, are not vampires at all, but actors! They’re part of an elaborate plot by Neuman and Zelen to make Baron von Zinden confess to the murder of Sir Karell. So, for that matter, is the “undead” Sir Karell, who’s really just some guy named Franz who bears a striking resemblance to the dead man. “How is this supposed to work?” you may ask, but believe me-- it’s better not to. Suffice it to say that the scheme is a success, and Zelen manages to get von Zinden to re-enact his crime on Franz by hypnotizing him into believing that it is the night of the murder once again. His motive? He knew Sir Karell’s will made him Irina’s guardian in the event of his death, and he had hoped that he would be able to stop her from marrying Fedor if that guardianship went into effect. Von Zinden wanted the girl for himself, you see. If it sounds like a crock of shit to you, that’s probably because it is.
Mark of the Vampire is a remake of an old silent film called London After Midnight, which starred Lon Chaney Sr. as the “vampire.” Today, not a single print of London After Midnight is known to exist. Browning directed both films, and he has been quoted to the effect that Mark of the Vampire is nearly a shot-for-shot reprise of the earlier movie. I hate to say it, but if that’s so, then the loss of London After Midnight may not have been such a bad thing.