Mark of the Vampire (1935)

Mark of the Vampire

director Tod Browning
viewed: 10/28/2014

For Bela Lugosi and Tod Browning, the distance from vamp to camp was a mere four years.  In 1931, they made movie history with Dracula, which for all his life was Lugosi’s image and character forever combined.  By 1935, we’ve got this “talkie” re-make of Browning’s famed “lost film” London After Midnight (1927), this time with Lugosi as the vampire in question, with a straight-up goth-tacular daughter.  But the icons evoked in Dracula are already played for evocative thrills but also a certain level of parody.

It starts like a vampire movie, and it’s got some lovely campy effects and the vampire’s daughter Luna (Carroll Borland), a spook that could have launched a thousand goths.  The real star of the film is Lionel Barrymore, who is swimmingly fun as the doctor of the occult, Professor Zelen.

Only the film turns out to not really be a vampire movie.  Apparently, like London After Midnight the vampire turns out to be a ruse by the police to catch a killer.  In this case, the very last scene shows Lugosi and Borland hanging up their capes and announcing their schtick.  Ironically, this fact seems to suggest that maybe London After Midnight might also not be the lost “classic” as suggested, but rather iconic and interesting because of Lon Chaney’s amazing make-up crafted for it.  An image is worth a thousand speculations and projections?

Still, it has its charms.

The Unknown (1927)

The Unknown (1927) movie poster

director Tod Browning
viewed: 01/02/2014

A few years back, I caught The Unknown at the Silent Film Festival at the Castro Theatre.  This time, I caught it on TMC.

At only 50 minutes of running time (apparently some early sequences have been lost to the ages), it’s a concise piece of Freudian bizarreness and sideshow freaks and madness.

A girl with a pathological fear of men’s hands (Joan Crawford) and the armless knife throwing sharpshooter who loves her (Lon Chaney) would be weird enough.  But Chaney is hiding his arms beneath a girdle, and his strange double-thumbed hand, as well as his murderous rage against the world and passionate love of Crawford.  He goes as far as having his arms actually amputated, so that she can love him truly armless, and also not recognize him as the murderer of her father.  Oh, but capricious love!  She falls for the strong man, overcoming her fear.  So Chaney is left with only the option of killing the man in an accident that would rip the arms off of the strong man!

Wow, it’s even crazier when you spell it out.  And all in those nice, tight 50 minutes.  Brilliant stuff from Tod Browning.

Freaks (1932)

Freaks (1932) movie poster

director Tod Browning
viewed: 10/30/2013

Some of the freakiest 64 minutes ever burned onto celluloid.  It might not have been director Tod Browning’s best career move, but this searingly outre document is one for the ages.  Surreal, super-real, it’s a glimpse into the world of the carnival freakshow, the lives of those who perform and live in that world, the real people of difference, the real, amazing humans whose physicality represent a horror but also an empathy and appreciation transcends the film’s time to now and doubtlessly all time hereafter.

The funny thing is that I wanted to watch this complex and challenging film with my kids.  I can only imagine what it would have made me think and feel at their age.

I didn’t actually watch it with them.  But I did watch it on TCM since it was on.

The ending, the image of the “freaks” hunting their revenge in the rain-splattered darkness.  We’ll never know what all was cut and lost from this film but what remains, is a template or horror, the dispassionate, cruel lynch mob, justified as it may seem within the film’s narrative.  It’s one of the greatest, most terrifying sequences in film.

The Devil-Doll

The Devil-Doll (1936) movie poster

(1936) director Tod Browning
viewed: 10/16/2011

Anything from director Tod Browning is of note in my book.  The director of such strange and effecting classics like The Unholy Three (1925), The Unknown (1927), London After Midnight (1927), Dracula (1931), Freaks (1932), and Mark of the Vampire (1935), Browning rose to his success primarily in working with Lon Chaney, Sr.  His film London After Midnight is considered one of the great lost films.  His 1932 pre-code film Freaks is an epic cult film.  He started in the silents and ended in retirement not long after making The Devil-Doll, an indisputably B-movie, but filled with lots of weirdness.

The film opens as Lionel Barrymore and another man have escaped from prison.  Barrymore’s character is fixated on revenge on the bankers that ruined him, while the other man has been a bit of a mad scientist with a dream to solve the world’s food shortage by shrinking humans to 1/6th their natural size.  When the scientist dies before realizing his dream (though he does perfect the science of it), Barrymore absconds to Paris to use this shrinking technology to exact his revenge on his enemies.

While the film really doesn’t manage much in great shakes, the miniature special effects are actually very good.  Mostly made with split screens and fake giant props, the visual style is more effective than a lot of other films, probably with a much more substantial budget.  With a cross-dressing avenger and miniature human “dolls” exacting revenge, the film has a lot of the goodly elements that make for a pleasurable little flick.  While it doesn’t necessarily surpass the sum of its parts, its parts are quite entertaining.


Dracula (1931) movie poster

(1931) dir. Tod Browning
viewed: 12/27/09

This is “the Dracula” in cinema.  Heaven knows that there are many more, but this is the Dracula by which all others, if not measured, are at least compared.  Directed by Tod Browning (Freaks (1932), The Unholy Three (1925), among others) and starring in his definitive and defining role, Bela Lugosi, who it is still so hard to see here in this film and not think of thousands of short-hand caricatures that he inspired with this performance.  Really, it’s the tragedy and success of his career, typecast to death, and turned into cartoon.

Still, for 1931 and Universal Pictures, the monster’s of the Victorian novels were getting their defining visual representations: Dracula, Frankenstein (1931), and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931).  Of course there are many other icons, but these figures are all almost as recognizable to the average American who may still have never seen any of these films (Mr. Hyde perhaps less so).

And frankly, it had been so long since I’d seen Dracula that in many ways I too was seeing it afresh.  I’d read a book by David Skal titled Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen back in 1991 when it was initially published.  Skal has gone on to write other books about the horror genre, including a biography of Tod Browning, which I have also always meant to read.  Since that time, I’d also been craving to see the Spanish version of Dracula that was filmed at the same time as this 1931 “original” (which I have at home on DVD).

But all this time, with new-gained knowledge, I never managed to see these films.  Well, I have been going through my “classic Hollywood” or “Universal Monsters” theme since prior to Halloween this year and like any dedicated aficianado, I still am running through the catalog.

Cinematographer Karl Freund, whose brilliant work in The Last Laugh (1924) among others, adds his stalking camera movement into some of the most stunning and iconic images and moments from this film.  Lugosi is relatively comical to a modern audience, under the influence of his much copied and lampooned Hungarian accent.  Yet, his face is dramatic and strikingly handsome.  One truly wishes that he’d had a chance to do some other more dramatic work before so quickly being turned into a cartoon.

The film is based on the play, Dracula, slimmed from Bram Stoker’s novel, and has several moments of gothic spectres.  Dracula’s brides, the ghostly vampire women in white, are evocative.  Helen Chandler as Mina is spritely and lovely.  Edward Van Sloan is almost as iconic as Van Helsing as Lugosi is as the Count.  And Dwight Frye gets his money’s worth out of the deranged Renfield.

But the film lags a little, the bats are pretty silly, flopping around on the ends of wire.  And even the most dramatic moment, Dracula’s spearing on the end of a wooden stake, happens off-screen in less dramatic fashion (not even a reaction shot of Lugosi, for instance.)

Still, it’s a fine film, a plum example of early American horror at its best, as Hollywood appropriated the Victorian monsters for their own stable of scary icons.  And even now, as near cartoons, the film has moments of drama a dread.

The Unknown

The Unknown (1927) movie poster

(1927) dir. Tod Browning
viewed: 07/12/08 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

The second film in my Silent Film Festival double feature was another great film from director Tod Browning and Star Lon Chaney, Sr.  The director and star made 10 films together in total.  A couple of years back I caught The Unholy Three (1925) in my first Silent Film Festival attendence, which was good, but The Unknown was considerably more impressive in its outlandish, outre weirdness, all part of the appeal of Browning’s work, as well as Chaney’s.

The Unknown is set in a small circus, featuring Chaney as an armless knife thrower and sharp-shooter and a young a beautiful Joan Crawford as his scantily-clad assistant.  In the first of many amazing sequences, Chaney not only throws knives at her with his feet, but uses a rifle to shoot off her clothing!  Chaney is in love with Crawford, the daughter of the circus master, but Crawford, in another huge element of Freudian craziness, is pathologically afraid of men’s hands.  Chaney tricks her other pursuer, the circus strongman into trying to get fresh with her, causing him to be violently shunned.

But, as it turns out, Chaney is faking his armlessness.  He’s a wanted man, hiding out in the circus.  But his armlessness is the thing that attracts Crawford to him, the only man who she does not fear.  Chaney, mad with love and realizing that if she found out that he actually had upper limbs would reject him, decides to actually become armless.  No hands, no pathological fear.  No groping!  No pawing!

The film’s bizarreness is its charm.  It’s a massively Freudian literalization of sexual fears, prowess, and negation.  And it’s totally entertaining as well.  Chaney sneers like no one else.  Some of his facial reactions to turns of events are totally alive and powerful.  And some of the footwork he does (though I have read that he had a truly armless stand-in for some shots) is amazing.  You can see the direction that Browning is moving in, toward his masterpiece, Freaks (1932).  He’s wild.

It was great to see this film with a huge audience, riding the reactions to the innuendos and plot twists.  Long live the Silent Film Festival!


Freaks (1932) movie poster

(1932) dir. Tod Browning
viewed: 04/08/07

The word unique is definitely abused in regards to its application of meaning “the only one” or “without like or equal” (definitions borrowed from, and people have tried to disabuse this by suggesting that there cannot be levels or “unique-ness”, meaning how can something be more “unique” than something else if by definition, it can only be unique if it is in fact unlike anything else?  Well, I like to be a purist, but quite frankly, I do think that there are levels of uniqueness, despite the oxymoronic aspect of saying so.  And I point all of this out to say that Tod Browning’s Freaks is about as unique as it gets.

I didn’t see the film until the 1980’s, on video or something, and it struck me the way that it strikes many.  There is a strange power to the film, just watching the actual “freaks” with their deformities and their strange abilities.  The sideshow was indeed captured here, and is now a fascinating artifact in a time when such exploitation is so frowned upon that one could hardly find the like in real life anymore.  The people themselves have some amazing qualities, especially Johnny Eck, “The Half-Boy” and Prince Randian, “The Living Torso”.  Just watching Randian who has no arms or legs, light a match and a cigarette with his mouth (apparently he also rolled the cigarette too), it’s nothing short of amazing.  These people have become icons because of this film, but are actually captured in their reality, too, their actuality, their being.

Seeing this slough of human oddities is still shocking today, as I am sure it will be for years and years to come.  It is a morbid and voyueristic curiosity that compels attention and interest simply because it is not a typical thing for one to see.  Especially the fascinating array of sideshow specialties collected by Browning for this film.

Browning had a significant interest in sideshows, having traveled with one early in his career, and he had a fascination with human deformity that he utilized in other films, mostly with Lon Chaney, including the amazing The Unholy Three (1925).  The film is interesting on a number of levels, and from an auteurist perspective of Browning, it’s quite pointed.  Film historian David Skal has written extensively about Browning’s career and it’s quite interesting.

The film is a cult film for good reason.  There are great moments of camp and bad acting.  The freaks themselves are compelling in their uniqueness and difference.

But what I found to be the most powerful thing in the film is its finale, which I have read was truncated due to its shock value, and the additional footage lost.  This is truly a shame because as the villainous strong man and the evil acrobat femme fatale are surrounded by lurking eyes of the freaks, preparing to dole out their “code” that “if you insult one freak, you insult us all”, the sequence unfolds into a masterpiece of horror.  The villains are hunted down in in the pouring rain by the “freaks”, and punished by being “turned into” freaks themselves, a bizarre culmination and satisfyingly shocking climax to this amazing and stunning film.

The Unholy Three

The Unholy Three (1925) movie poster

(1925) dir. Tod Browning
viewed: 07/16/06 at the Castro Theatre

I saw this film as part of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival which just played at the Castro Theatre over the weekend.  Despite the fact that an acquaintance of mine is the chair of the festival and I have been attracted to it in years past, this was my first visit to the festival.

It’s a great thing, really.  The silents were an era of invention and change in the world and the industry that developed (so quickly in America) was quickly laying out rules and adapting narratives from popular books and inventing cinema, literally.  I had an avant-garde film class when I was an undergrad and one of the first films that was shown in that class was a Chaplin film.  The teacher posited because of the newness of the cinema that in a sense all early film was potentially avant-garde in a sense.  It is such a different experience to watch a fully visual story, not being screamed at by the surround sound atmosphere of the cinema (which I think is really cool itself).  It’s just plain different.  A different experience and one that I enjoyed completely.

This film had interested me for years.  I was a Lon Chaney fan from childhood.  I had seen stills from it in books and magazines and I had seen the sound remake of it, which was Chaney’s last film.

It’s full of sideshow fun, midgets, strongman, and a killer gorilla (who is really a chimpanzee).  Chaney is a ventriloquist who leads the “Unholy Three” and disguises himself as an old woman with the midget pretending to be a baby.  It’s greatly amusing and a little bit shocking.  It’s wacky stuff.