RETRO REVIEW: MARK OF THE VAMPIRE! An Alluring But Controversial Lugosi/Browning Classic Haunts the Big Screen Once More the Plaza Theatre

Posted on: May 26th, 2014 By:

MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935); Dir. Tod Browning; Starring Bela Lugosi, Carroll Borland, Lionel Barrymore and Elizabeth Allan; Friday, May 30 (8:00 p.m., 9:45 p.m. and 11:00 p.m.), Saturday, May 31 (8:45 p.m.) and Sunday, June 1 (5:30 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.); Plaza Theatre; Tickets $5.00; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

As part of the Plaza Theatre’s week-long celebration of Bela Lugosi starting Friday May 30 (full preview here), one of his greatest—and most controversial—motion pictures gets a rare screening: his final collaboration with director Tod Browning, 1935’s MARK OF THE VAMPIRE!

Prague, 1935. An aristocrat is found dead, drained of blood, with two puncture wounds on his neck. The locals believe that vampires—in the form of Count Mora (Bela Lugosi) and his daughter Luna (Carroll Borland), whom they believe haunt the nearby castle—are responsible for the murder. Police inspector Professor Zeren (Lionel Barrymore) is skeptical, however, and is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery behind the mark of the vampire.

Tod Browning was in need of some luck. He’d had a stellar career making deliciously twisted silent features, most notably starring the incredible Lon Chaney. He was hired by Universal Studios to direct 1931’s DRACULA starring Bela Lugosi (with whom he’d worked on 1929’s THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR). Despite the film’s success, Universal was unhappy with Browning’s work, and he moved to MGM to direct 1932’s FREAKS. That film proved so scandalous and controversial (and commercially unsuccessful) at the time that Browning’s career came to a screeching halt. So, when MGM accepted his proposal to helm a remake of his 1927 silent LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (now considered a lost film, with the last known print destroyed in a 1967 fire), he was determined to make the most of it.

And he nearly pulled it off. Despite the film’s more unsavory aspects being removed (implications of incest between Mora and Luna, which resulted in Mora’s suicide and the pair condemned to an eternity of living death) and the film’s trimming from 75 to 61 minutes, the film works like gangbusters. Up to a point, that is.

You see, in the realm of classic horror, few films are as debated as hotly as MARK OF THE VAMPIRE. All of the ingredients of a Golden Age classic are there: a menacing, wordless performance by Bela Lugosi as Count Mora; Carroll Borland as his daughter, Luna, establishing a visual template followed by Maila “Vampira” Nurmi and Morticia Addams; and the deft, atmospheric direction of Tod Browning.

So, what’s the deal?

It’s the twist ending that provides the film’s payoff. It’s an ending that negates everything that came before. Things we have seen with our own eyes are now established as having been impossible. It’s a cheat. Even Bela thought it was ridiculous and pleaded with Tod Browning to change it. A much better ending (that even kept the light tone of the original’s) was suggested, and Browning refused to change course. I’m not going to spill the beans by detailing what happens, but it’s really impossible to talk about MARK OF THE VAMPIRE without bringing up the fact that many see the twist as a crushing disappointment.

And I’m right there with them. It’s such a blow to the film because the rest of it is so good. It’s largely the film that DRACULA could have been if Browning hadn’t been hamstrung by Universal’s budget-pinching measures. (The studio had recently sunk a lot of money into THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, and was facing financial difficulties due to the Great Depression. Unconvinced that the horror thing would pay off, DRACULA had many elaborate scenes scrapped and wound up hewing closely to the play in staging the film.) MARK OF THE VAMPIRE’s sets are sumptuous. The effects scenes are brilliantly pulled off, with Luna soaring on bat’s wings and Count Mora materializing out of mist. The photography by legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe is glorious. The performances of stage/screen legend Lionel Barrymore and Elizabeth Allan are rock-solid and ground the film firmly. The supporting cast (especially Lionel Atwill as Inspector Neumann and Donald Meek as the timid Dr. Doskil) is delightful. It all comes together so beautifully, only to be sold so short by an ending that aims for cleverness and lands in clunkiness.

If you can forgive the film its ending, there is so much there to enjoy. Just discount what you see happen on screen after the mystery has been solved, and imagine that Lionel Barrymore’s Professor Zelen receives a telegram saying something like “Sorry, can’t make it. Train held up at the station. Hope everything works out,” and you’ll walk out of the theater a happier person. But to miss the film on the big screen is to miss one of the best—yet one of the most unheralded—vampire pictures ever to come out of Hollywood’s classic era. Or at least 90 percent of one.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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Kool Kat of the Week: Chuck Porterfield Calls the Punches for a Pop Culture Nightmare Before Thanksgiving at Monstrosity Championship Wrestling This Friday

Posted on: Nov 14th, 2012 By:

Bummed that Halloween is over and scared that Christmas will be here way too soon? Never fear, our BFF blog WrestlingwithPopCulture.com and the Silver Scream Spookshow’s Professor Morte are stirring together two Retro standards, classic monsters and wrestling, for the ultimate Monstrosity Championship Wrestling (MCW) showdown this Friday Nov. 16, starting at 8 p.m. at Club Famous, inside Famous Pub in Toco Hills. MCW made its debut at the Atlanta Zombie Apocalypse in 2011, and the creatures clashed again at Wrestling with Pop Culture’s one-year birthday party in March and June’s Rock n Roll Monster Bash.

In addition to the monster mayhem, the eerie-inspired event will also feature live music by the Casket Creatures; body painting by Neon Armour; fiendish freebies and devilish drink speciuals courtesy of Cayrum Honeys; a raffle with such phantasmic prizes as a bag of edible body parts from Pine Street Market, a Dead Elvis flask from Diamond*Star*Halo and more. We can’t wait to raise a “To Hell You Ride” cocktail to Jonathan Williams, the creator of Wrestling with Pop Culture for his well-deserved Reader’s Choice Award for Best Local Blog in Creative Loafing’s Best of Atlanta 2012. [ATLRetro was too humble (well, busy) to court your votes this year, but watch out Wrestling with Pop Culture, we’ll be in the ring fighting for your title in 2013!]

To find out more about the spooktacular spectacle, ATLRetro caught up with ultimate monster movie and wrestling nerd (and proud of it!) Chuck Porterfield, who will be calling the action while monsters, maidens, and madmen go at it in toe-to-toe mayhem!

ATLRetro: I know you’ve been into both wrestling and monster movies, so I assume that’s what made you so excited about MCW.

Chuck Porterfield: Personally, I’m excited because it combines my pure adoration of monster movies, as well as seeing a lot of the INCREDIBLE athletes from Platinum Championship Wrestling (PCW) together. The Washington Bullets, probably the best tag team in the state of Georgia will be there, as will the Pound-For-Pound, Toughest Woman in Wrestling, Pandora. Also, my man, the “Demigod” Mason will show everyone why he’s the hero of PCW’s current homebase, Porterdale, Georgia!

This isn’t the first bout of Monstrosity. Are there any old scores from previous fights to be settled?

The match garnering the most attention is the return of Dragula, the most fabulous blood-sucker in wrestling as he takes on The Kentucky Wolfman!

Chuck Porterfield gets down with the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Photo courtesy of Chuck Porterfield.

Ever since I was a kid I’ve loved weirdo pop culture! I remember watching KING KONG on WGN one year on Thanksgiving, and my love of monsters was then inescapable. Hours of MUNSTERS and ADDAMS FAMILY reruns, Adam West as BATMAN and pretty much any wrestling I could find on TV defined my youth.

So your passion for wrestling goes back to childhood, too? 

I don’t remember the first wrestling I saw, but I watched any and all then-named WWF programming I could find. There weren’t many kids in the neighborhood so I’d jump off my sofa onto the cushions. Or at least I did until I undershot it and hit my head on my dad’s pool table!

How did you get into professional wrestling?

My first entry into professional wrestling was with Southern Extreme Championship Wrestling. For a couple of reasons, that didn’t really work out so well so I left to pursue other interests. I never stopped thinking about the wrestling business, so when I saw that PCW had brought wrestling back to Atlanta I knew there could be an opportunity with them. Stephen Platinum chose to take a chance on a guy he knew nothing about, and I think things have worked out to be mutually beneficial. Along with guys like Penn Jillette and Herschell Gordon Lewis (2000 Maniacs), I consider him to be one of the most influential people in my life.

What is it like collaborating with Wrestling With Pop Culture mastermind Jonathan Williams? It seems like his blog (our BFF blog) has really upped local coverage of wrestling and is helping to fuel the scene.

Jonathan is a tremendous supporter of independent wrestling in Georgia and the success of his blog speaks for itself. I wouldn’t ask him about his altercation with The Jagged Edge outside of the steel cage though…

You used to work at Video Store, one of Atlanta’s best psychotronic video rental stores in Little 5 Points [owned by Matt Booth, who now runs the super-cool Videodrome]. Do you ever miss those pre-Netflix/streaming days when a guy like you could be a salvation for local movie buffs?

With the exception of independent powerhouse Videodrome, it’s true that Atlanta is basically a video store graveyard. Part of me misses the days in college of going through the aisles of stores, particularly the dearly-missed Blast Off Video in Little 5 Points, but I also just see it as a reflection of life itself. None of us are promised a single day, a single smile, and I just try to be grateful for the days and opportunities I have. I try not to dwell too much on what is lost and think about what’s out there to be created.

Photo courtesy of Chuck Porterfield.

Who are your favorite monsters?

My favorite monsters? You’d think this would be a hard one because I love so many, but hands down it’s Frankenstein’s Monster, the Creature from the Black Lagoon and the big monkey himself, Kong! But from a purely sexual attraction level, no one can match the Bride of Frankenstein and Morticia Addams! Some crushes last with you forever…

What else are you up to?

Right now I’m working with Blake Myers, director of the heart-stirring gem of a documentary DISABLED BUT READY TO ROCK [Ed. note: read our Kool Kat interview with Blake here] to make a space fantasy web series called SASS PARILLA CONQUERS THE MARTIANS, that is ambitious to say the least. It’s going to take a LOT of time and energy to get it right, but I think it’s custom-made for fans of this blog. In fact, if there are any investors out there with a love of psychotronic movies and skepticism, we’re the guys you want to talk to!

Thanks so much for being our Kool Kat of the Week!

Thanks, Atlanta Retro! You’re the keenest, sexiest and coolest blog around! XOXO

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