Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Mark of the Vampire (1935)

Tod Browning and Bela Lugosi's post-Dracula vampire reunion film is a nice atmospheric Universal horror film with plenty of low hanging fog and giant spiderwebs, all within a giant castle, of course. It also contains one heck of woman vampire.

That's Luna (Carroll Borland), and she's supposed to be the daughter of Count Dracula, d'I mean, Count Mora. While the main plot, which has something to do with Lionel Barrymore investigating a murder, is doing its own thing, Mora and Luna are wandering around their castle, looking ever so classily spooky.

Luna is a wonderfully designed creation. While Lugosi repeats his vampire garb of suit and cape, reminiscent of the 19th century, Luna looks like she comes from a more ambiguous time period. Her dress with train is reminiscent of the vampire brides that haunted Dracula's castle in the earlier film, but the lack of ornamentation on her modest, long sleeved gown, long hair, and striking make-up gives her the appearance of a more modern, yet ageless type of vampire. I have read theories that her look was an inspiration for the appearance of Lily Munster, which isn't too far-fetched.

Besides her appearance, Luna, as far as I know, is not only one of the earliest examples of a cinematic vampire who happens to be a woman, but also is one of the first seen (or more accurately, implied) to actually bite a person. I hesitate to say first, because this film is a remake of an earlier Tod Browning silent, London After Midnight (1927), one of the most famous lost films of all time. Judging from the "reconstruction" (actually just a bunch of promotional stills tied together with inter titles), the woman vampire in that film also attacked the good (ie forgettable) heroine.

Given what few scenes she has, Luna manages to hold attention in those moments with her otherworldly appearance: the way her dress spreads like wings when she attacks:

Or her slow decent with actual bat wings, a true way to enter in style.

While hesitant in calling her a rebel, there is something gratifying in seeing a lady vampire joins the Dracula club in neck bitting and transformation; it's how she separates herself from the previous vampire brides. She is a daughter, defining herself outside of a parent, no longer just a passive follower of her authority figure willing to slink off at the first glint of disapproval. Though she still follows orders, she manages to make do on her own, all the while staring eerily with the best of the bloodsuckers.

(Spoilers) Even the revelation that she and her "father" are no more than actors, hired by Detective Lionel Barrymore to...accomplish something relevant to the case, I think.... doesn't deter Luna from being cool. It's here that the audience is finally given a chance to see her without make-up, and smiling. Remaining mute throughout much of the film, she is finally given a voice, and a snarky one at that. Responding to the Count's pompus declaration that he "was better than any REAL vampire", she says "Sure, sure, but get off your make-up", followed by "And help me with some of this packing" (referring to their trucks of props, including those gorgeous wings). Her grounded demeanor is a refreshing break from the somber, hysterical ladies that so often populate this Universal horror movies; she's had her fun, but is ready to move on with her life, like a true professional performer.

Even as a mortal, she still is her own woman, one who is no-nonsense and not defined by her more famous co-star. It's beyond appropriate, after being placed in a consistent position of subservience,  we last see Luna giving that man who played her father orders.

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