Saturday, April 17, 2010

"Same As It Ever Was...."

Briefly, an apology. I'd like to state that for those who have invested time reading my work, it's really not fair to keep you on the hook so long. I know I'm probably over-estimating how much the six or seven of you care about my writing, but all the same I hate to disappoint. Those of you who've been to Honors Zombie Films will have some clue as to why all the radio silence. I've been lucky enough to have stuff to edit, which usually means someone was nice enough to let me point a camera at them for a few minutes (or an hour). Anyway, it feels awesome to be able to do one unimportant thing, but it gets in the way of all my other unimportant things and soon I've got twelve hundred vampire films to review and it's almost Cannibal Month. So what I'm trying to say is thanks for sticking with me. Now, onto the undead. The 1930s saw the first instances of what would become commonplace in cinema a few decades later to the point of overwhelming numbness on the part of the movie-going populace. I'm talking about the rip-off, of course, and if anything ever got its shit ripped off it was Dracula. It took a little longer than it does today but it was no less conspicuous. I will give the rip-off artists of yesterday one thing, they had a good deal more success than their modern counterparts. While The Vampire Bat and Mark of the Vampire are not great films, and though they both resort to one of my least favorite cliches, they do represent pretty big improvements stylistically and tension-wise over the film they were aping.

The Vampire Bat
by Frank L. Strayer
A made-up village is under attack by what the locals believe to be a vampire. The burgermeister has called on detective Karl Brettschneider to weed it out, but he's convinced that this is a lot of superstition. How he managed to escape the folksy paranoia of his neighbors is anyone's guess but the only other people in town who don't think it's a fabled monster are the detective, his dish of a girlfriend Fay Wray and her boss Lionel Atwill, a scientist whose madness is going to take awhile to really come out in the open. The people in town think its this movie's Renfield surrogate Herman. In Herman's defense he seems way, way too simple to pull of something like multiple murders without being caught but to be fair to everyone else he is played by Dwight Fry, who was Renfield in Dracula, only this time his descent into madness isn't so hammy. So while everyone in town blames Herman for the murder of a kindly old lady, Brettschneider knows better even if no one will listen to him. What he doesn't realize is that the answer is right under his nose.

What struck me instantly about this movie is its averageness. It's nothing special, very brisk, very ok. But then I remembered the screaming terrible quality of Dracula and all of a sudden mediocre didn't seem so bad. I was being less than charitable toward The Vampire Bat, mainly because of the terrible print I was watching, because it really is rather good for its 1933 release date. It's not quite as exciting as say The Most Dangerous Game, but its directed with panache and scripted smartly. The kind of twisty-turny ride that you go on with red herring after red herring makes for a much better film than Dracula. In what would quickly become a trend, the B take on the A subject is much more satisfying. The film is really very simple but there's a kind of pleasure to be found in that especially when you're in the closing minutes and something far wilder than a run-of-the-mill Dracula rip-off unfolds. The ending is another element that took me a few days to consider thanks to mere exposure. I'd seen that kind of ending a dozen times that it took me a while to figure out that all those films, The Atomic Brain, Terror From The Year 5000, The Brain That Wouldn't Die, and literally hundreds more, all started here. This is one of the first mad-science for mad-science's sake movies. Unlike a figure like Rotwang from Metropolis, The Vampire Bat's Otto von Niemann has nothing but good old-fashioned world-domination on the brain, which is all but a first.
And this film has something that neither Dracula nor its many sequels or rip-offs had: Fay Wray. Yes, Wray really was as good as all that and though she never really recaptured the success of King Kong, she was the queen B for a few minutes in the early 30s and performances like this one prove that she was worth much more than what they were probably paying her. It helps too that she's quite attractive. Finally the script does a nice job dealing with one of Dracula's more gaping logical loopholes, the superstitious villagers. It made quite literally no sense at all that the villagers in that film would willfully live in the shadow of a killer content to feast on their families. In The Vampire Bat the villagers dealt with the suspected vampire the first time he reared his head by hanging him and when they think it's Herman, well they don't exactly fuck around. When Brettschneider learns what they did to him, his reaction is priceless and shows how vastly ahead of his contemporaries screenwriter Edward T. Lowe was, "Good god, are we living in the middle ages!?" It's a shame that Browning couldn't have gotten Lowe to pen his next fanged outing, then maybe it would have been as appealing visually as narratively.

Mark of the Vampire
by Tod Browning
Fedor Vincente has shown up to get married in what is arguably an even less cheerful village than the one in The Vampire Bat. His fiance Irina is excited to see him, but she's the only one. Her father Sir Karell Borotyn and a man who is something like Irina's godfather Baron Otton von Ziden seem to be embroiled in some long-standing disagreement exacerbated by the young interloper. All suspicions are heightened when Sir Karell is found dead with what we hardened cinephiles know as Vampire bites on his neck. The village doctor says the same as he and every other yokel for miles thinks their village is being haunted by a vampire and his daughter, though this time there's no Dwight Frye character to blame. So Lionel Atwill, this time a detective, hires that other famous Lionel, Barrymore, in the form of a kind of nonsense-spewing Van Helsing role, or so it seems. Barrymore puts the house on lockdown and gives the windows and doors and ladies the garlic necklace treatment. Fedor is understandably a little bummed that his wedding night turned into a goddamned garlic-smelling fiasco but understands his bride-to-be's life might be at stake so he plays along, especially when things get serious. How serious? Well when Atwill takes Von Zinden over to the castle that's suppose to house the vampires they see the dead Sir Karell carousing with a floating vampiress and Bela Lugosi complete with cape. That's how serious, jack! So, the existence of vampires supposedly proved, what are they gonna do now? Atwill and Von Zinden opt to kill them but Barrymore seems to be against it. Why? The answer....may shock you....or piss you off...

Ok, so remember when I said that Dracula was the second proper vampire film? Well that isn't strictly true. Browning helmed a film called London After Midnight which was ostensibly about a vampire but in the end it's actually about a plain old murder and the vampire isn't a vampire at all. So, really Dracula was the second to treat its subject matter seriously and considering that London After Midnight was lost and only exists in a truncated form consisting of production stills set to music and inter-titles it can't really be treated the same way. Mark of the Vampire is thus perhaps most famous as a remake of the earlier Browning film. After that it's famous for being that film with the stupid tension-removing ending. An even hoarier trope of genre films than the rip-off is the horror film that turns out to not be a horror film at all. I hate, hate, hate it when horror films pull that eleventh hour crap especially when there was some kind of skill employed in the preceding hour(s). Granted Mark of the Vampire isn't exactly Shutter Island or even Identity for that matter, but still, Tod Browning all but redeemed himself with that tremendous shot of Carroll Borland descending from the ceiling. That is some otherworldly shit and easily the best bit of imagery the man ever produced. Beyond that the film has little to offer. Lugosi, thankfully, keeps his mouth shut till the very end, but when he does, he ruins the movie.
The film's plot is already an under-written labyrinthine maze of intrigue made all the more difficult to follow thanks to every one of the old men in the film looking exactly the same and speaking with fake accents. I didn't know who was who or why the surprise was a surprise until the film was over and I'd consulted some people who'd already reviewed it. No film that can't keep its characters straight can be called a masterpiece but what little respect I had for it vanished come deus-ex-machina time. Yet, it moves a little quicker than Dracula, corrects a few of that film's mistakes (while making new ones, but still...), and has easily twice the style. That, I think, is something that the best Bs managed in spite of themselves. Neither The Vampire Bat nor Mark of the Vampire had a tremendous budget or more than a few sets, but both manage to be better and less aggravating than Dracula. As we'll see, it's the film made under the gun that often gets to the heart of the subject matter and they start by having a heart in the first place.

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