Directed by: Michael Curtiz/Tod Browning
Starring: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Lee Tracy/Lionel Barrymore, Bela Lugosi, Jean Hersholt
It’s Halloween—what better way to honor the season than with two classic horror pictures of the creepy kind? And while neither Michael Curtiz’s Doctor X (1932) and Tod Browning’s Mark of the Vampire (1935) are likely to shock viewers used to today’s more over-the-top horrors, they yield the realm of sheer creepiness to no film. Actually, if you pause to think about the content of Doctor X—dismemberment, intimations of necrophilia and cannibalism—it’s pretty over-the-top in its own right, and it’s all wrapped in German Expressionist sets and shadows enhanced by the otherworldly look of early two-color Technicolor. Plus, its “monster” is perhaps the grisliest looking creation of the classic horror era. Mark of the Vampire, on the other hand, is almost pure atmosphere of the kind that only Tod Browning could generate.
Doctor X has the distinction of being the only classic-era horror film that ever really scared me. Granted, I was probably 10 years old when I first encountered it at 1 a.m. on an odd late show called “Limbo Theater” that ran movies without commercials. My tender years and the lack of commericial interruption (atmosphere is greatly enhanced when not broken up with Wonder Bread and Veg-o-Matic ads) played a part in the experience. But at the same time, the movie still has a tone—an unreal aura—that sets it apart. There’s something unsettling—even unnatural—about the whole thing. The weird faded-looking color (which I didn’t see till the late 1980s), the mix of natural and theatrical acting styles and the complete absence of a musical score adds to the disturbing feel of the movie.
The story line is unusual for its time in that it juxtaposes gothic horror with an otherwise modern (1932-wise) setting. It’s structured as a mystery and handled in part as a newspaper comedy. It is, in fact, the movie that established the concept of a wise-cracking newspaper reporter as hero in a horror film. To this end, someone had the presence of mind to cast the great Lee Tracy—who had originated the archetypal fast-talking newsman in the 1928 Broadway production of The Front Page—as Lee Taylor, a nervy, yet nervous reporter out to solve the “Moon Killer” murders that have been plaguing New York City. And grisly these murders are—all commited under the full moon with the victims’ bodies left mutilated and cannibalized. The evidence leads to the conclusion that the killer is a member of Dr. Xavier’s (Lionel Atwill) medical academy.
The first part of the film takes place in the city with the modernity of a morgue, the medical school and the newspaper office providing an interesting contrast to the horror element—though it’s definitely a modernity seen in Expressionist terms. It’s also one that takes place in the typically gritty realism associated with Warner Bros.—and it’s very much pre-code since there’s a sequence (featuring frequent Laurel and Hardy nemesis Mae Busch as a hooker) that takes place in a very obvious whorehouse. The second part of the film moves to an old dark house perched on a cliff at Blackstone Shoals on Long Island. Here, Dr. X’s very modern laboratory (sharp-eyed viewers will doubtless recognize that the set was remonkeyed to serve as original wax museum in the following year’s Mystery of the Wax Museum) stands out in sharp relief to the endless corridors and traditional genre trappings.
Interestingly, there are actually two distinct versions of the film—the Technicolor one and a black-and-white one, and it’s not a simple case of printing the color film in black-and-white. The film was—at least in part—shot twice. The color version’s credits read “Photographed by Technicolor” and credits Ray Rennahan as cinematographer. That card is replaced with no mention of Technicolor and Richard Towers credited as cinematographer in the black-and-white version.
Some of the film may use the same footage, but the angles are often slightly different and dialogue is delivered with variations throughout—and starting at the very beginning when a cop whistles two different tunes depending on the version. It’s pretty obvious that the film was only shot in color to use up a contractural commitment to Technicolor and it only played in major cities in color. For years, Warner Bros. claimed the color version was lost, though oddly the titles on the 8mm home-movie 10-minute condensation came from that version. After the color version was restored by UCLA, the black-and-white one has for all intents and purposes disappeared.
Certain aspects of the story line don’t make a lot of sense—notably just when the killer is supposed to have installed his secret laboratory inside Dr. X’s mansion. One might also wonder what his plans were after revealing his identity to about half a dozen people in the film’s final scenes. If things had gone his way, would he have disposed of everyone? Oh, well, it’s not the sort of thing one tends to worry about in a movie like this. More mysterious perhaps is how and why the shot of the killer strangling the butler found its way into the trailer for John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon nine years later—especially considering that nothing even remotely like that happens in Huston’s film!
Tod Browning’s Mark of the Vampire is a remake of his—now lost—silent film London After Midnight (1927) and it appears to follow the original very closely. It also tends to be one of the most reviled of all classic horror pictures for that fact, since it means that the story turns out to have a “rational” explanation—even if this explanation is much harder to buy than the existence of vampires. Interestingly, reviewers in 1935 (apparently unaware of the original) tended to find the solution a clever variation on the standard horror picture. “Monster Kids” coming upon the film on “Shock Theater” in the 1960s were considerably less pleased, viewing the whole thing as a gyp. I never felt that way myself and always found it delightful.
With that in mind, it probably pays to approach the film as an exercise in atmosphere—and that it has in spades. In fact, it’s hard not to wish that Browning’s Dracula (1931) had been this incredibly creepy for longer than the first couple reels. The film centers on an apparent group of vampires—primarily Count Mora (Bela Lugosi) and his daughter Luna (Carol Borland)—who have set up house in the abandoned castle of the murdered Sir Karell Borotyn (Holmes Herbert). This unwholesome duo (their backstory that seems to have had something to do with incest and suicide—Count Mora has a bullet wound on his temple—is missing) doesn’t seem to do very much except wander around and look spooky, but they do look spooky. They do turn their attention to vampirizing Sir Karell’s daughter, Irena (Elizabeth Allen), though that’s ultimately not quite what it seems.
Whatever else it is, Mark of the Vampire scores high marks for creating a sense of otherworldly dread that depends very little on whether or not what we see makes any sense. No amount of rational explanation alters this—or the procession of weird, ghostly images that generate that feeling. How you’ll feel about the ending and, for that matter, Lionel Barrymore’s deliriously hammy turn as Professor Zelen (the film’s Van Helsing equivalent) is another matter. But see it for the atmosphere. The rest? It’s fun if you’re willing to go along for the ride.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Doctor X and Mark of the Vampire Thursday, Oct. 28, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville. Hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.