Tod Browning isn’t the subtlest director around, and the intensity of his vibe stems directly from his tendency toward over-saturation. That means that in Freaks (1932) there’ll be no shortage of midgets and dwarfs: they form an omnipotent force in that film. But it also means that in The Mark of the Vampire (1935) puppet bats and synthetic cobwebs are in no short supply, nor is there any lack of dense fog (that fails to cover up the artificial studio locations). The story is steeped in vampire rhetoric, with a strict pre-Freudian feel. Victims describe the vampire attack as an almost dreamlike state, where they succumb to some “unknown” – repressed – urges.
A man is found dead one morning, slumped over his desk, with the only signs of attack being two bite marks on his neck. The town suspects vampires but the police, of course, refuse to believe in such superstitions. Enter Lionel Barrymore, the aged vampire hunter. The victim, however, returns from the dead along with a dead ringer for Dracula (played by Bela Lugosi) to cajole his daughter into joining him as an undead.
Three-quarters into the film comes a plot twist that invalidates almost everything that came before. Since the film is so ridiculous, this is of no concern: anyone who made it thus far has already forgone any sense of rationale. The twist turns the film from a vampire flick into a Banquo’s Chair-esque story about catching a criminal by toying with his subconscious. The vampire plotline is revealed to be a gimmick in order to trick the suspected murderer into reliving the night of the crime. In the end, however, the murderer is hypnotized into re-committing the crime, and the whole vampire sub-plot becomes unnecessary.
But still, there are those puppet bats, flying about the rooms, coming in through windows, bobbing up and down like the spoon in your mother’s hand that she wants you to believe is an airplane… There is no explanation sufficient to explain them. Thank goodness.
Cullen Gallagher is a Brooklyn-based writer, musician, and curator whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Life Sentence, Moving Image Source, Bright Lights Film Journal, Beat to a Pulp, NoirCon, Crimefactory, Film Comment, The L Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Fandor, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, Hammer to Nail, Spinetingler, Between Lavas, Reverse Shot, and Guitar Review. He records instrumental music as Modern Silent Cinema and plays in the hardcore band Night Squad.