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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Shop Around: Living La Vida Goo Goo Muck: Monster Art Studio’s Jeff Riggan Whips up a Surreal Visual Sideshow for the Rock n Roll Monster Bash at the Starlight Drive-In

Posted on: Jun 1st, 2013 By:

Just another reason Atlanta has become Halloween-Town, USA is the Rock and Roll Monster Bash  Sun. June 2 at the Starlight Six Drive-In. Hosted by the Silver Scream Spookshow‘s Professor Morte, the fiendishly fun festival of macabre music and movies is now in its 11th year. Highlights include MONSTROSITY CHAMPIONSHIP WRESTLING, live music by six bands, a souped-up hearse show, and two classic horror features in 35 mm majesty, THE DEVIL’S RAIN (1975), starring William Shatner, Ernest Borgnine and John Travolta, as well as Sam Raimi‘s EVIL DEAD 2 (1987), starring Bruce Campbell‘s chin and a chainsaw. [Read our Retro Reviews for THE DEVIL’s RAIN here and EVIL DEAD 2 here].

Another big reason to come is a vicious vendors market, featuring a wide variety of cool monster-themed and Retro-inspired merchandise from vintage cult movie ephemera to vintage clothes, Gothic jewelry to BBQ and booze. One of our favorite discoveries last year was artist Jeff Riggan, who had just moved himself and his Monster Art Studio up to Atlanta from Florida. We’ve been running into him at various street festival art markets, and his work has never ceased to impress us, from stuffed sideshow freaks Slugmo and Squidboy to gigantic tiki/tropical-themed works or a mega-painting of Lux Interior of The Cramps!

A professional artist for nearly 30 years, Jeff has painted approximately 30 murals for Orlando-based Tijuana Flats Tex-Mex restaurants, as well as created sets, sculptures, murals and large scale artwork for the Universal theme parks, Six Flags, WonderWorksNickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and more. He and his work has been featured in many publications, local and national news, as well as several television shows.

Needless to say, Jeff’s tent will be one of our first stops at the Bash this year, but ATLRetro also is horrifically happy to report that’s just one of his nefarious plots to do his part in making Atlanta the official monster capital of America!

ATLRetro: You’ve got some big plans for this year’s Rock N Roll Monster Bash, such as a scarily special photo op, I hear! What can you reveal in advance without giving away any spoilers?

Jeff Riggan: There will be blood.

As I recall, last year was either your first Monster Bash and you were pretty excited about being part of it. What’s your personal favorite thing about Monster Bash and why it’s a not-to-be-missed Atlanta event?

Last year Monster Bash was our first festival in Atlanta, and it opened the doors for me.  Monster Bash is a great venue for people with a freaky passion for art,  music, classic horror movies.

How did you first get into painting monsters? Does it go back to when you were a kid? Is there a cool story?

Listening to punk rock, skateboarding. Sid & Marty Krofft polluted my mind, Evel Knievel got me amped and Bob Ross had a painting show. That’s how it all started!

Who was your first favorite monster growing up and why?

[Maurice Sendak‘s] WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. It laid rest on my mind until I started making my stuffed creatures.

You’ve done murals, 3-D art, sides of buildings, all sorts of crazy stuff. What were one or two of your most fun projects and why?

I worked in the theme park production industry for over 15 years, which was an amazing experience. I would have to say the most fun I had was in my own backyard, so to speak, painting murals for a local co-op in Florida, all over the outside of their buildings. They let me have the freedom to express myself. One of my most favorite was painting a three-story high Great Dane. I also enjoyed traveling from the Florida Panhandle to Chicago painting murals for a corporate restaurant – I was given free reign to paint whatever I wanted.

In addition to monsters and murals, you paint music-inspired art such as your recent Cramps and tiki-stuff. How do you describe your art and what are the limits of what you enjoy creating?

I listened to music before I began painting, it was a creative outlet for me until I discovered I was an artist. It’s a tangible way for me to express myself. They are intertwined, art and music. Lux Interior, Unknown Hinson, Hunter S. Thompson – in my own interpretive way.

You used to live in Florida. What brought you to Atlanta and when exactly did you move up here?

I came here as a leap of faith in May 2012. Monster Bash was our very first show here in ATL , so [I and my wife Emily] have been here for one year!  It was an immediate overwhelming sense of belonging – everyone we met said “Welcome to Atlanta.” True Southern Hospitality!

Atlanta has a huge horror scene now. What do you think of it, and how is the local fervor for horror inspiring/affecting your work? 

I think it’s amazing.  It definitely challenges me. I’ve also met some cool people – Tim [Mack] from Imperial Opa Circus, Chris Brown of Macabre Puppets – that have inspired me.

You seem like the kind of guy who must have an amazing studio. Can you describe it and what you keep around to inspire you?

Eyeballs, skulls, torsos,  “souvenirs” from dumpster diving and exploring old buildings, machine parts, trailers, bicycles – Fred G. Sanford would be envious!

Didn’t you some movie work here lately?

I just finished working on THE CIRCLE, an independent horror film, with Beth Marshall, Tripp Rhame, Ben Jacoby and Tom Hamilton. Forrest Hill and I built props, special effects, and build the sets  We worked out at the old prison farm on Key Road, near the Starlight Drive-In.

What else are you up to right now, and what’s the next event at which you’ll be exhibiting/selling your work? 

A featured spread in Stuffed Magazine with my felted circus freak creatures – Slugmo and Squidboy. We’ll be at the Strut [Sept. 21] in East Atlanta and then…..who knows!  My sets/booths are becoming more and more elaborate, and I am always adding new stuff.

What question do you wish someone would ask you but they never do? And what is the answer? 

Hey, can we pay you for your ideas, you just create stuff? The answer is YES!

The 11th annual Rock and Roll Monster Bash kicks off at 10 a.m. Sunday June 2 and runs all day and night at the Starlight Six Drive-In. Get their early to stake out the best parking spots. Bands include Alice Cooper tribute group Black Juju, Baby Baby, a reunion of The Butchers, Dracula (singing the hits as only he can!), Spooky Partridge and Metal Gaga (the lovechild of Lady Gaga and Iron Maiden!). Advance tickets are available at http://www.ticketalternative.com.

To purchase artwork year-round or contact Jeff about custom paintings, set design and more, visit Monster Art Studio online.

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Retro Review: WHITE ZOMBIE Walks Again in the World Premiere of an All-New Restoration at Atlanta’s Historic Plaza Theatre!

Posted on: Jan 16th, 2013 By:

WHITE ZOMBIE (1932); Dir. Victor Halperin; Starring Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy, John Harron and Robert Frazer; World premiere Friday, Jan. 18 @ 8:00 p.m. hosted by Prof. Morte (scary details at end of story), and Jan. 25-31; Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

Long before George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD forever redefined “zombie” in the public mind as “undead, flesh-eating ghoul,” the Halperin Brothers first brought the Haitian legend of the zombie to the screen with 1932’s WHITE ZOMBIE.

The movie finds young couple Madeline Short (Madge Bellamy) and Neil Parker (John Harron) reuniting in Haiti to be wed at the plantation of their friend Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer). Beaumont’s secret love for Madeline drives him to visit local voodoo master Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi) in order to enlist his help in winning Madeline’s hand. Legendre provides Beaumont with a potion that will transform her into a zombie, robbed of her will and love for Parker. He complies with Legendre’s instructions, but soon finds that the villainous voodoo master has plans of his own for the young beauty.

In 1932, America was in the midst of a newfound fascination with voodoo due to New Orleans’ emergence as a tourist destination. Interest was further fueled by authors such as William Buehler Seabrook. Seabrook was a well-traveled journalist, explorer, occultist and Georgia resident who had gained renown by documenting occult practices across the globe, including some of the only objective contemporaneous reporting on Aleister Crowley. Seabrook’s interest in the occult led him to spend considerable time in Haiti researching voodoo and the Culte des Morts. This adventure resulted in his 1929 book THE MAGIC ISLAND, which introduced the concept of the “zombie” to American audiences.

Producer Edward Halperin and his brother, director Victor Halperin (along with screenwriter Garnett Weston) capitalized on the nation’s interest in voodoo by borrowing liberally from both Seabrook’s work and Kenneth Webb’s 1932 Broadway play, ZOMBIE, and crafted an atmospheric masterpiece. The Halperins enlisted Bela Lugosi, fresh off his success in Universal’s 1931 smash DRACULA. It’s unclear as to Lugosi’s reasons for choosing to immediately follow a major studio hit with a micro-budgeted independent film, but he may have seen it as a way to stretch his creative muscles in a low-risk venture. Although he was paid little for his role (reports vary from $500 to $5000), his co-star Clarence Muse reported that Lugosi rewrote portions of the script, restaged some of the scenes and even directed portions of the film. His personal investment in the end results may be why Lugosi considered WHITE ZOMBIE a favorites among his own movies.

It could also be because it’s just a damned fine film.

The film deftly balances the legendary with the actual. While Legendre’s zombies are the reanimated corpses of Haitian lore (their look provided by Universal’s maestro of makeup, Jack Pierce), the film also depicts his use of a poison that emulates death and results in the victim’s deathlike trance and subsequent subservience to a bokor or sorcerer. Though this method had long been suspected, a pharmacological explanation for the zombie phenomenon wouldn’t be confirmed until ethnobiologist Wade Davis’ explorations into Haiti in the 1980s.

Beyond the film’s knowing mixture of fact and fiction, it benefits from the collaboration of Victor Halperin, cinematographer Arthur Martinelli and music superviser Abe Meyer. Together, they take what may have read on the page as stagebound and stodgy and create a dreamlike vision that mirrors Carl Dreyer’s VAMPYR (also 1932), echoes elements of contemporaneous Universal horrors and anticipates Val Lewton’s exercises in atmosphere and sound design. Constantly inventive staging and camera work—taking place on sets borrowed from DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN and THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME—operate in sync with native drumming, chants, ambient noise, eerie rearrangements of classical works and original music by Xavier Cugat to deliver a palpable sense of creeping death under the oppressive hand of Murder Legendre.

And in the role of Legendre, Lugosi becomes the embodiment of evil itself. No other role—not even Dracula—fully utilizes his mesmeric power and hypnotic presence. From the opening scene, when his eyes are superimposed on the landscape of Haiti, his presence is felt in every frame of film; this is the power of his performance as Murder Legendre. The Halperins attempted to recapture the magic of this film with a sequel, REVOLT OF THE ZOMBIES, but made the mistake of attempting to replace Bela with Dean Jagger. It’s no small wonder that the subsequent film failed.

For years, WHITE ZOMBIE only circulated on washed-out transfers of faded 16mm prints, mastered for public domain VHS and TV broadcast. In 1999, two rare 35mm prints were used to create the restored version released on DVD by the Roan Group. However, those prints were hardly in pristine condition, displaying evident damage and dropped frames.

Left to right: Bela Lugosi as voodoo master Legendre, a mesmerized Madge Bellamy and a concerned John Harron in WHITE ZOMBIE (1932).

In recent years, Los Angeles-based Holland Releasing had heard that a previously unknown complete 35mm print was rumored to be in the possession of an aged film collector. Thomas W. Holland (a previous resident of Roswell and Marietta) spoke about the efforts to track down this elusive print and its owner. “I heard a rumor about an old fellow who claimed to have a superb, original 35mm print and that began a worldwide search to find this aging, eccentric film lover and convince him to let us acquire the film for a full restoration.  People think I’m joking when I say I had to go through a friend of a friend of a friend to contact this man.” When the print was found, Holland was stunned at its overall condition. “It must have been removed from theatrical service early on, or been set aside as a special studio print.” The Holland Releasing group then set about restoring the film.

AlgoSoft-Tech USA, based in Bishop, Georgia, was hired to return WHITE ZOMBIE’s image quality to its original standards. AlgoSoft’s president, Dr. Inna Kozlov, a famed mathematician in her native Russia, took on the project with great excitement. “We arranged to have the vintage 35mm print scanned, frame-by-frame, at a very high resolution so as not to lose any information.” From that point, Dr. Koslov and her technology developer, Dr. Alexander Petukhov wrote customized software to correct any imperfections in each frame. “Our goal was to return the film’s visuals to how they looked in 1932, the way a vintage carbon arc light source would have glistened through a silver nitrate print of the era.”

Another Atlanta firm, Crawford Media Services, was chosen to do the final re-assembly of the motion picture which included intensely detailed color-correction. “Being a black-and-white film, WHITE ZOMBIE required far more expertise and patience than a typical color feature to get the light levels correct,” says producer Holland. “This film is a gothic masterpiece, and we wanted it to look exactly the way it did when audiences first saw it.”

Once the Georgia image work was completed, the master was sent to Chace Audio by Deluxe in Burbank, California. Using a variety of sources, Chace remastered the film’s faded audio tracks to restore the sound to match the quality of the restored image. “Early sound films had a tremendous amount of inherent hiss, clicks and pops,” Holland says, “but Chace was able to give us a new audio track that greatly reduced this. We weren’t looking to make a hi-fi version of the WHITE ZOMBIE track, just a cleaner, clearer representation of how the movie originally sounded in theaters of the ’30s.”

Of course, any restoration invites an amount of controversy, and WHITE ZOMBIE is no exception to this rule. The Holland restoration, which has been licensed for use on an upcoming DVD and Blu-Ray release by Kino/Fox Lorber, is already attracting its share of debate from advance reviews. (The release offers two viewing options for comparison: the Holland restoration and a “raw” transfer of the print used prior to AlgoSoft’s restorative work.) However, without actually being able to see an arc light-projected silver nitrate print of WHITE ZOMBIE, it’s impossible to say that the Holland restoration is an inaccurate representation of how the film looked in 1932.

What is most exciting, though, is the chance to see WHITE ZOMBIE on the big screen once again as the restoration makes its world premiere at the Plaza Theatre. The Plaza is making this night a grand event. Hosted by Professor Morte of the Silver Scream Spookshow (aka Shane Morton) and Blake Myers (Atlanta effects artist, filmmaker, Buried Alive Film Festival programmer and ATLRetro Kool Kat, whose credits include THE WALKING DEAD and V/H/S), the film will be preceded by the vintage Betty Boop cartoon “Is My Palm Read?” and followed by the 1932 short subject “An Intimate Interview with Bela Lugosi.” Following the filmed entertainment, the team behind WHITE ZOMBIE’s restoration will take part in a question-and-answer session. And attendees will have a chance to win a lifetime all-inclusive ticket to the Plaza, original Plaza seats and T-shirts and monster masks from event sponsor Atlanta Zombie Apocalypse.

Following its premiere on January 18, the film will be showing at the Plaza for a full week, running from January 25-31, and will be shown on a one-time-only basis in theaters across the Unites States and Canada. But you can be there first and see WHITE ZOMBIE brought back to life at its world premiere in Atlanta.

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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30 Days of the Plaza, Day 27: The Monster Demands a Mate! Silver Scream Spookshow presents The Bride of Frankenstein at the Plaza Theater on Oct. 27

Posted on: Oct 22nd, 2012 By:

Elsa Lancaster as THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Universal Pictures, 1935.

By Rebecca Perry
Contributing Writer

Silver Scream Spookshow Presents THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935); Dir: James Whale; Starring Boris Karloff, Elsa Lancaster, Colin Clive; Sat. Oct. 27;  kids matinee at 1 PM (kids under 12 free & adults $7) and adult show at 10 PM(all tickets $12); All proceeds of today’s shows benefit Atlanta’s oldest running independent cinema, the nonprofit Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.
“To a new world of gods and monsters!”
– Dr. Pretorius, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN
Closing out Universal Monster Month at the Plaza Theatre on Sat. Oct. 27 is THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Released in 1935 by Universal Studios, this second film inspired by Mary Shelley’s novel is, in this writer’s opinion (and many others), the best of the Universal Monster films and one of the rare sequels that is superior to the original (1931’s FRANKENSTEIN). James Whale, who also directed FRANKENSTEIN and co-wrote the screenplay for BRIDE with William Hulburt, originally did not want to direct a sequel. It was only after years of persuading from Universal that he relented, and then only under the stipulation that he have complete artistic freedom to direct the picture as he envisioned it.
        Although she appears on screen for less than 5 minutes, The Bride of Frankenstein, portrayed by Elsa Lanchester, is one of the most iconic movie characters of all time. Her horrified reaction to Boris Karloff’s Monster is heartbreaking, especially when we see the look on the Monster’s face at being rejected once again. (“She hates me.  Like others.”)
        I remember seeing this film for the first time at age 7 on a local Detroit television show called Creature Feature, which would often show classic horror and sci-fi films every Saturday afternoon. I was glued to the screen and couldn’t wait to see what the Bride would look like;. Would she be disfigured like the Monster or beautiful like the other Bride in the film, Elizabeth (played by Valerie Hobson)? When the bandages were finally removed at the end of the film, I had a new fashion icon (sorry, Wonder Woman), and I have been a Universal Monsters fan ever since.
      Editor’s Note: This screening of THE BRIDE OF THE FRANKENSTEIN also will be the sixth anniversary of the Silver Scream Spookshow, so you know Professor Morte and his ghoulish gang will be pulling out all the scary stops in the paranormal preshow! With your box office benefiting the Plaza Theatre, that makes it our top pick for an ATLRetro Halloween. Not just full of tricks, this is Atlanta’s best kept grassroots treat. Be there or be scared – either the kids’ matinee or the evening adults’ show!

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