Grave-y Browning

Halloween is coming! Don’t forget to buy Sight & Sound with me and D. Riccuito interviewing Barbara Steele!

I grew up mad at the BBC because they rarely honoured All Hallows Eve with the kind of zeal I felt was required. In general, Scotland was more into witchy stuff in late October than the English, and the BBC is essentially English. There was rarely anything on to mark the occasion. And now here I am on Shadowplay not doing my bit. That must change. Expect some horror posts.

My favourite thing in MARK OF THE VAMPIRE is the George Romero zombie groaning that accompanies every appearance of Bela Lugosi and Carol Borland as the vampires. There’s no explanation for it. It’s also mixed way down low on the soundtrack, so it qualifies as subtle, especially compared to the Lionels, Atwill & Barrymore, hammering the single notes of their respective performances until repetitive strain injury of the thespic kind sets in.

The best BAD thing, in a film with many bad things — Tod Browning was surely defrauding MGM by pretending he was coming in to work on this one — is the opening “transition” from a painting of a church roof by daylight, to the live action set, which is a night scene. It’s one of those optical printer moves, which works so well at the start of CASABLANCA for instance, and works so NOT well here that it’s momentarily hard to tell what’s meant to be going on: are we panning off a movie screen that’s been hung on the side of a church?

Six men worked on this script, each devotedly removing anything of quality the others saw fit to add — an unending task — some say you can still hear the clack of typewriters as you pass the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on a dark night. Even if this weren’t already a remake, it would be fatally unoriginal — even the gratuitous opossum looks tired.

We-ell, I been sick…

I guess we know Tod was about because of the opossum, and the various rats and creepy crawlies — not just fake bats, but fake spiders and a — is that meant to be a CRAB? — inapparopriate fauna are very much a Browning trope.

Anything that’s any good, apart from the groaning, in the movie, is via James Wong Howe’s cinematography and Cedric Gibbons and his unnamed worker elves who cobbled together the spooky sets. You could cut the thing down to about five minutes of master shots and lose nothing but verbiage and folderol. Every spooky shot looks absolutely iconic — maybe because THIS seems to be the principle inspiration behind Edward D. Wood, Jr.’s Gothic imagination.

MARK OF THE VAMPIRE stars Mr. Potter; Mrs. Copperfield; Dr. Vitus Werdegast; Inspector Krogh; Dr. Paul Christian; Mr. Twiddle; Nurse Peggotty; Amschel Rothschild; Daffy Dolly; Fat Girl with Hamburger; Rula Murphy; Dr. John Lanyon; and Dr. Kluck.

4 Responses to “Grave-y Browning”

  1. Simon Kane Says:

    I’ve only seen this only once, ages ago, but remember liking it, possibly for exactly what you’ve described here.

  2. It is definitely nice to see Bela packing his trunk at the end, an old ham looking forward to his next gig. If that scene had a few more lines I’d like it even more. Poor Carol Borland’s only line in the film is delivered offscreen!

  3. Some other picks for light chills:
    — Hammer’s HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES. The Rathbone version is classic, but this is the one for Halloween.
    — ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, which for all the schtick deploys the big three more effectively than the two HOUSE OF features.
    — THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES, which involves Lou Costello being killed, thrown in a well and cursed, so he could eventually haunt Bud Abbott and others. Weird moments of earnest spookiness.
    — CAT AND THE CANARY, Silent and/or Bob Hope. Not interchangeable, but each definitive in its way.
    — DR. SYN, ALIAS THE SCARECROW. Either the theatrical release or the television episodes. Okay Disney stuff, made iconic by the Scarecrow character himself.
    — GHOSTBUSTERS, the original.
    — GHOSTBUSTERS, the gender-switch remake. Actually pretty good, and better than GHOSTBUSTERS II. The vibe is more improv, the effects take a different angle, and most of the original cast turn up in bits (Bill Murray is a flamboyant skeptic).
    — Early and unsettling Casper cartoon:

  4. Ooh, I owned a talking Casper doll as a kid – you pulled his head off and he spoke, making him quite unlike all my other friends.

    I like The Time of their Lives a lot. Weirdly, I always felt Carry On Screaming was the epitome of Halloween entertainment, maybe because it’s one the BBC DID show.

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