Bats in the Belfry: MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (MGM 1935)

Tod Browning’s 1931 DRACULA is a masterpiece of terror, the film that launched the Golden Age of Horror and made Bela Lugosi a star. Four years later, Bela and Browning teamed again for MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, loaded with horrific atmosphere but staked through the heart by two fatal blows – too much comic relief and an ending that’s a trick, rather than a treat, for horror buffs.

Lugosi and his “daughter”, Carroll Borland

The shadow of vampirism is terrorizing a small European village, as Sir Karel Borotyn is found murdered, drained of his blood! Inspector Neumann investigates, not believing in such supernatural hokum and suspecting everyone. Lovely young Irena Borotyn, engaged to handsome young Fedor, stands to inherit her father’s estate, with family friend Baron Otto serving as her guardian. When a peasant is found also drained of blood, the villagers suspect the evil Count Mora and his daughter Luna have risen from the dead to conduct a reign of terror.

The Two Lionels (l-r): Barrymore & Atwill

Occult expert Professor Zelen is called in to consult on the matter, and he concludes the vampires are real, despite Neumann’s protestations. Irena and Fedor are attacked by the undead creatures, and an exhumation of Borotyn’s grave finds his coffin empty. Fearing an infestation, Zelen leads the charge after sunrise to find and destroy Mora and his minions. Zelen then hypnotizes Baron Otto to confront the undead Sir Karol, but we find it’s all been an elaborate ruse to unmask Sir Karol’s real killer – Baron Otto!

The Great Bela Lugosi!

That’s right, the “vampires” have been nothing more than actors hired to smoke out the Baron. We do get a treat in Lugosi enacting the part of Count Mora, silently stalking his prey and skulking about among the cobwebbed, vermin-infested castle. Our favorite Hungarian almost gets the last, delicious word as the film ends on a comic note. But the “comedy relief” from Donald Meek as a local doctor and Leila Bennett as Irena’s maid are a bit too much for my dark taste in horror, and the trick ending spoils what could’ve been a horror classic.

Carroll Borland as Luna

Lionel Barrymore  gets top billing as Professor Zelen, working once again with Browning, as he would a year later in THE DEVIL DOLL. It’s always good to see horror regular Lionel Atwill , playing the first of many roles as an Inspector. Jean Hersholt portrays Baron Otto, and Elizabeth Allen makes a fetching Irena, but Henry Wadsworth is a total twit as Fedor. Carroll Borland, who played onstage opposite Lugosi in DRACULA, creates an iconic vampiress in Luna, and an inspiration for future TV horror “g”hostess Vampira. Miss Borland only appeared in a handful of films, but left an indelible mark on the horror genre with her creepy portrayal of Luna.

The gang’s all here!

James Wong Howe’s  photography is eerie enough, and reminiscent of the best of Universal. But the script by Guy Endore and Bernard Schubert is riddled with holes; Endore also wrote the script for THE STORY OF G.I. JOE and the novel The Werewolf of Paris, which was adapted into Hammer’s 1961 CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, so I’ll give him a pass. MARK OF THE VAMPIRE is a remake of Browning’s lost 1927 silent LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT, but since I (nor anyone currently alive, far as I know) has seen that Lon Chaney frightfest, I can’t compare the two. Perhaps Browning was trying to make up for the stir he caused with 1932’s FREAKS by adding all that extra comedy and false ending; whatever the case, MARK OF THE VAMPIRE is definitely a lesser entry in the classic horror canon. Without Lugosi and Borland, it would be even less, but as it stands, it’s worth at least one viewing.

 

Halloween Havoc!: THE DEVIL DOLL (MGM 1936)

Producer/director Tod Browning’s THE DEVIL DOLL is a film reminiscent of his silent efforts with the great Lon Chaney Sr. This bizarre little movie doesn’t get the attention of Browning’s DRACULA or FREAKS ,  and the ending’s a bit on the sappy side, but on the plus side it features Lionel Barrymore dressed in drag for most of the time, some neat early special effects work, and a weird premise based on a novel by science fiction writer A. Merritt, adapted for the screen by Guy Endore, Garrett Ford,  and Erich von Stroheim (!!).

Barrymore stars as Devil’s Island escapee Paul Lavond, and he pretty much carries the picture. Lavond and fellow con Marcel (Henry B. Walthall ) make it to Marcel’s home, where wife Melita (a pop-eyed Rafaela Ottiano) has been keeping the faith on her hubby’s experimental work… turning animals miniature, to solve the coming food shortage and better mankind. But their brains shrink too, and the critters can only act when a human imposes their will on them (by thinking real hard, apparently).

Servant girl Lachna (Grace Wood), an “inbred peasant halfwit”, is next in line for testing, but when things go awry, Marcel dies of a heart attack. Lavond takes this opportunity to travel with Melita and (now) tiny Lachna to Paris, to exact revenge on the three banking partners who framed him for embezzlement and murder. Posing as the elderly dollmaker “Madame Mandilip”, Lavond goes after his crooked former friends, hoping to win back the love and respect of daughter Lorraine (Maureen O’Sullivan ), who grew up hating her convicted criminal father.

Like Chaney Sr. in Browning’s THE UNHOLY THREE, Barrymore is more than convincing as the old woman, and seems to be having a field day all bundled up in ladies’ garments. His tour de force performance is what makes THE DEVIL DOLL worth watching, as sadly the rest of the cast is lacking. Ottiano overacts as Melita, Frank Lawton is bland as Lorraine’s cabbie beau Toto, Walthall is wasted (and looks terrible; he died a month before the film’s release), and bad guy bankers Robert Greig, Arthur Hohl, and Pedro de Cordoba are stereotype villains. Only O’Sullivan as Barrymore’s daughter and Ford as the shrunken Lachna shine in their supporting roles. Look real quickly for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit by comedian Billy Gilbert as a butler… I’m wondering if he originally had a bigger part that got cut from the movie. Any film fans know the answer to this mystery?

The special effects can best be described as “early Bert I. Gordon“, done with superimposing and rear projection. No doubt cutting edge for their time, they don’t stand up nearly as well as John P. Fulton’s work for Universal or Willis O’Brien’s marvelous KING KONG . THE DEVIL DOLL isn’t on a par with the best horrors of the 30’s, but curious fans of Tod Browning and/or Lionel Barrymore will want to take a look. Browning would make one more film, 1939’s MIRACLES FOR SALE , before retiring. Barrymore continued his thespic career as cranky Dr. Gillespie in the ‘Dr. Kildare’ films, and he’s fondly  remembered for his role as mean Mr. Potter in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Now Henry Potter… that was one really scary dude!

Halloween Havoc!: Tod Browning’s FREAKS (MGM 1932)

Ex-carnival and sideshow performer Tod Browning had combined his love for the macabre and carny life in films before in two silent films with the great Lon Chaney Sr (THE UNHOLY THREE, THE UNKNOWN), but with FREAKS Browning took things to a whole new level. The cast is populated with genuine “abnormalities of nature”, legless and armless wonders, bearded ladies and skeletal men, a crawling human torso and microcephalic pinheads, parading across the screen to shock and frighten the audience. Yet it’s not the “freaks” that are the monsters in this movie, but two specimens of human physical perfection, their healthy bodies hosting malice and murder.

The film opens with a sideshow barker drawing a crowd to a horror hidden in a box, victim of what happens when you dishonor the code of the freaks – “offend one and you offend them all”. A flashback introduces us to the members of this dark carnival, beginning with midget performer Hans, who has an insane crush on big person Cleopatra, a trapeze artist dubbed “the peacock of the air”. Cleo plays along, toying with Hans’s affections and making his fiancé Frieda extremely jealous. Beautiful young Venus, meanwhile, is about to leave her abusive lover, the strongman Hercules, and is taken in by nice-guy clown Phroso.

Hans showers Cleo with gifts, and she soon discovers the dwarf has inherited a fortune. The scheming siren conspires with the strongman to marry Hans and do away with him. “Midgets are not strong”, she tells her musclebound lover. “He could get sick… it could be done”. Browning takes us to the famed ‘Wedding Feast” scene, in which the freaks are partying hardy. A chant begins among them in Cleo’s honor: “Gobba gabba, gobba gabba, we accept her, one of us”, and a goblet of wine is passed around. Cleopatra is appalled by them, and when the goblet is served to her, she unleashes her fury. “Freaks! Freaks! Freaks! Get out of here!” The dejected “living, breathing monstrosities” leave the room as Cleo and Hercules humiliate Hans, perching him atop Cleo’s shoulders and parading around the tent.

Cleopatra is slowly poisoning her new husband, but the freaks are watching from a distance. Always watching, hidden in the dark, underneath the wagons. Watching and waiting. Hans is wise to Cleo’s plot against him, and initiates a plot of his own with the help of his brethren. The circus wagons roll out during a storm, and Hans and his army of freaks confront Cleo. Hercules, trying to silence Venus, fights with Phroso. The freaks go on the attack, creeping and crawling in the darkened storm, and Hercules dies in the muddy road, as the “peacock” runs screaming into the night in the pouring rain, hunted down like an animal. The flashback ends, and the audience is shown the result in that box: Cleopatra has truly become “one of us”!

Browning’s film shocked both audiences and MGM execs, who cut a half hour from the film, then swiftly withdrew it’s release. The negative reactions to FREAKS effectively ruined Browning’s career; he’d make only four more films before retiring in 1939. FREAKS was banned in Britain, and sat unseen until the early 1960’s, when it was rediscovered by midnight movie audiences and rightly heralded as one of the best in the horror genre. Browning never knew his dark vision had been vindicated, having died in 1962.

Of the “big people” in the cast, Leila Hyams and Wallace Ford are sympathetic to the plight of the freaks as Venus and Phroso. Miss Hyams was (and is!) a Pre-Code favorite in films like THE BIG HOUSE, RED HEADED WOMAN, and THE BIG BROADCAST, also appearing in Browning’s first talkie THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR (with Bela Lugosi) and the horror classic ISLAND OF LOST SOULS. I’ve discussed Ford’s career many times; he was one of the most dependable character actors in film. Beautiful Olga Baclanova (Cleopatra) was a silent star whose transition to talking pictures was hampered by her Russian accent; in FREAKS that accent and her exotic good looks serve her well as the villainess. Henry Victor (Hercules) suffered the same fate as Baclanova, though his career was lengthened by WWII, where his German accent came in handy in Nazi roles. His horror credits include THE MUMMY and KING OF THE ZOMBIES . Other “normal” Familiar Faces include Roscoe Ates, Ed Brophy, Rose Dionne, and Matt McHugh.

But it’s the freaks themselves who are the real stars, beginning with Harry Earles as the diminutive Hans, and his sister Daisy playing fiancé Frieda; both were circus performers with extensive movie credits. The rest were recruited straight from sideshows, circuses, and carnivals, each amazing in their own right. Most well known is probably Schlitzie, the microcephalic who served as the model for Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead. She’s joined by two others, Zip and Pip. Prince Randian, the Human Torso, was born without arms or legs, and demonstrates an amazing ability to overcome his handicap. Johnny Eck, the “half-boy” who walks on his hands, is equally amazing. The famed Hilton Sisters, conjoined twins Violet and Daisy, once performed in vaudeville with no less than Bob Hope , and starred in the exploitation film CHAINED FOR LIFE. There’s Josephine Joseph (hermaphrodite), Koo Koo (the bird girl), Olga Roderick (bearded lady), Peter Robinson (human skeleton), Frances O’Connor (armless girl), and Delmo Fritz (sword swallower). Dwarf star Angelo Rossitto , who had a long and successful film career, also appears.

Tod Browning and the cast of “Freaks”

FREAKS will disturb some people even today, mostly those who feel the performers were being exploited by Browning. Yet these men and women took what misfortunes nature had given them and used it to their advantage to earn a living as best they could. We should be grateful Tod Browning gave them a chance to shine on the screen, especially in a movie showing them in a sympathetic light. In the world of the FREAKS, it’s Cleopatra and Hercules that are the true monsters, and their retribution, while horrifying, is justified. Browning’s dark carnival remains a masterpiece of early horror, and perfect for a dark, stormy Halloween night.

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 6: All-Star Horror Edition!

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As many of you Dear Readers know by now, classic horror has always been my favorite genre. From the Universal Monsters to Bug-Eyed Aliens to Freddie Krueger and friends (fiends?), a good scary movie is a good time! Even a bad scary movie can be fun, if I’m in the right mood. So here are six (count ’em), yes six horror films I’ve recently watched, with some great horror actors and directors at their best (and worst!):

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MIRACLES FOR SALE

(MGM 1939, D: Tod Browning)

The first great horror director, Browning teamed with Lon Chaney Sr. in the silent era to shock audiences with films like LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT and THE UNHOLY THREE. He kicked off the Golden Age of Sound Horror with DRACULA, followed by the controversial FREAKS. MIRACLES FOR SALE was his last film, and while it’s more of a locked-room mystery, it’s loaded with those bizarre Browning touches. Robert Young stars as The Great Morgan, ex-stage magician who now devises tricks for others, in this occult-flavored whodunit involving a beautiful blonde damsel in distress, a phony mystic, a demonologist’s murder, and magic tricks aplenty. There’s some chills to be had here, and Browning fans will enjoy seeing the old master at play one last time. (Fun Fact: Universal horror vets Henry Hull (WEREWOLF OF LONDON) and Gloria Holden (DRACULA’S DAUGHTER) play key roles in the mystery.)

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SCARED TO DEATH

(Screen Guild 1947, D: Christy Cabanne)

Move over, Ed Wood…this may very well be the worst movie ever! A dead woman on a morgue slab narrates the tale of how she died. The story’s told in flashback, with occasional annoying cuts back to the corpse for a brief sentence. Bad acting, non-existent direction, rotten writing…even the cheap Cinecolor process is atrocious. Horror icons Bela Lugosi and George Zucco are wasted, as are character actors Douglas Fowley, Nat Pendleton, and Joyce Compton.  And I have no idea what midget actor Angelo Rossito is supposed to be doing except being a midget! SCARED TO DEATH may bore you to death! (Fun Fact: It’s your only chance to see Lugosi in a color film…but don’t say I didn’t warn you!)

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FRANKENSTEIN 1970

(Allied Artists 1958, D: Howard W. Koch)

Boris Karloff  plays a descendant of Dr. Frankenstein instead of the monster in this quickie. A television crew visits Castle Frankenstein to shoot footage for the 250th anniversary of The Monster’s creation. There’s a strong Hammer influence, as we see onscreen body parts, though they’re kept in a fridge and gotten rid of via garbage disposal! Karloff slices up the ham pretty thick here, but the spooky atmosphere and some creepy scenes almost make up for his overacting (almost). The King has done far better films, but this one’s OK for a rainy day with nothing better to do. (Fun Fact: Former cowboy star Donald “Red” Barry plays the obnoxious TV director.)

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THE VALLEY OF GWANGI

(Warner Bros 1969, D: James O’Connelly)

This sci-fi-Western hybrid is much more fun than the recent COWBOYS & ALIENS, thanks to the genius of special effects master Ray Harryhausen . A failing Wild West Show  travelling through Mexico stumbles upon the Forbidden Valley, where prehistoric dinosaurs still roam the Earth, and capture a T-Rex in this film that owes a lot to KING KONG . James Franciscus loses his Texas accent about halfway through, Gila Golan’s Israeli accent had to be dubbed, and Lawrence Naismith camps it up as a British paleontologist, but it’s not about the acting, it’s about those marvelous Harryhausen monsters. Always fun to see his Dynamation dinosaurs engage in a roaring battle. A good if not great little gem. (Fun Fact: 50’s sci-fi icon Richard Carlson (CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE ) plays rodeo boss Champ in his last film role.)

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SHOCK

(Laser Films 1977, D: Mario Bava)

Mario Bava directed some classic Italian horror and giallo films (BLACK SUNDAY, BLACK SABBATH, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE…hmm, I sense a pattern here!) and his last, SHOCK, is an eerie and uncomfortable thriller about a creepy little kid (David Colin Jr of BEYOND THE DOOR) who’s possessed by the spirit of his dead junkie father and tries to drive his mother crazy. Bava’s familiar themes of sex, death, and horror are in play, as is his eccentric cinema wizardry.  A truly twisted swan song from one of the world’s most unique filmmakers, well worth checking out. (Fun Fact: Daria Nicolodi who plays the mother, is the real-life mother of actress/director/cult figure Asia Argento)

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THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY

(Fulcia Film 1981, D: Lucio Fulci)

Believe it or not, this was my first time viewing a Lucio Fulci film. It won’t be the last!! THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY took me back to the days when I’d go see movies like DON’T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT and CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS, great loopy masterpieces of cinema schlock. A family rents a home in a quaint suburban Boston town while the husband completes some research by a colleague who committed suicide. Unfortunately, the house is still occupied by Dr. Freudstein, a disgraced (and deceased) turn-of-the-century surgeon who lives off his victim’s body parts. There’s gore galore and plenty of frights to be had here, and Fulci does a good job with the New England atmosphere, including nods to local supermarket giant Stop & Shop. And that scene with the bat scared the piss outta me! (Fun Fact: this was the final entry in Fulci’s “Gates of Hell” trilogy…you know I’ll be looking for the other two!)

Halloween Havoc!: Bela Lugosi in DRACULA (Universal 1931)

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DRACULA is the film that ushered in The Golden Age of Horror. Sure, there were silent films with elements of the macabre, especially those starring Lon Chaney Sr, and the German expressionist films of Ufa Studios. But this tale of a bloodthirsty vampire on the loose in London struck a collective nerve among filmgoers for two reasons. First was it talked…sound films were barely out of their diapers, and the chilling voice of star Bela Lugosi mesmerized the masses. Second, the country was in the midst of The Great  Depression, and audiences were hungry for escapist fare to take their minds off their troubles. DRACULA took them to another world, a world populated by undead creatures of the night, fiends who were ultimately stopped by the forces of good.

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No need to rehash the plot of DRACULA…if you don’t know the story by now, you’re reading the wrong blog! Instead, I’ll take a look at what works in the film and what doesn’t. Though the movie has lost much of its power in the 84 years since its release, the performance of Bela Lugosi certainly hasn’t. The Hungarian actor originated the role on Broadway, and perfected it to the point where he’s still imitated today. While not as ferocious as Christopher Lee’s interpretation of the Vampire King, Lugosi is in full command here. His slow manner of speaking and impeccable wardrobe make Bela the suavest of ghouls, while those burning eyes let the audience know this isn’t someone to mess with. And those long, splayed fingers reaching to clutch his victim’s throats became a Lugosi trademark, often imitated but never duplicated.

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Tod Browning’s direction is somewhat static, saved by the marvelous camerawork of the great Karl Freund. The eerie sets of Castle Dracula and Carfax Abbey are filled with shadows, cobwebs in every corner, and a variety of vermin. Dwight Frye adds to the atmosphere as Renfield, driven to madness by the Count’s power. Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing isn’t as athletic as Peter Cushing, but is convicing as the occult expert (as he was in The Mummy). But David Manners and Helen Chandler as the young lovers just don’t cut it for me. Their blandness drags the scenes they’re in down, their acting stiff and wooden. The film is slow paced as it is, and the pair doesn’t help matters. Manners, in his jodhpurs, is particularly annoying, while Chandler just isn’t appealing. Sorry, but I’d rather have Frances Dade (who plays Lucy, one of Drac’s victims).

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Historically important, DRACULA today pales compared to other horror pics of the era. But it was the first, and without it we wouldn’t have those other movies to savor. I usually watch DRACULA every year around Halloween, just to see Bela Lugosi in his most famous (and arguably greatest) role. And despite some of its faults, you should, too. DRACULA has been remade and reworked hundreds of times, but let’s be honest…nobody plays the Count better than Bela. Nobody.