Bats in the Belfry: MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (MGM 1935)


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Tod Browning’s 1931 DRACULA is a masterpiece of terror, the film that launched the Golden Age of Horror and made Bela Lugosi a star. Four years later, Bela and Browning teamed again for MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, loaded with horrific atmosphere but staked through the heart by two fatal blows – too much comic relief and an ending that’s a trick, rather than a treat, for horror buffs.

Lugosi and his “daughter”, Carroll Borland

The shadow of vampirism is terrorizing a small European village, as Sir Karel Borotyn is found murdered, drained of his blood! Inspector Neumann investigates, not believing in such supernatural hokum and suspecting everyone. Lovely young Irena Borotyn, engaged to handsome young Fedor, stands to inherit her father’s estate, with family friend Baron Otto serving as her guardian. When a peasant is found also drained of blood, the villagers suspect the evil Count Mora and his daughter…

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Halloween Havoc!: THE DEVIL DOLL (MGM 1936)


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Producer/director Tod Browning’s THE DEVIL DOLL is a film reminiscent of his silent efforts with the great Lon Chaney Sr. This bizarre little movie doesn’t get the attention of Browning’s DRACULA or FREAKS ,  and the ending’s a bit on the sappy side, but on the plus side it features Lionel Barrymore dressed in drag for most of the time, some neat early special effects work, and a weird premise based on a novel by science fiction writer A. Merritt, adapted for the screen by Guy Endore, Garrett Ford,  and Erich von Stroheim (!!).

Barrymore stars as Devil’s Island escapee Paul Lavond, and he pretty much carries the picture. Lavond and fellow con Marcel (Henry B. Walthall ) make it to Marcel’s home, where wife Melita (a pop-eyed Rafaela Ottiano) has been keeping the faith on her hubby’s experimental work… turning animals miniature, to solve the coming food shortage…

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Halloween Havoc!: Tod Browning’s FREAKS (MGM 1932)


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Ex-carnival and sideshow performer Tod Browning had combined his love for the macabre and carny life in films before in two silent films with the great Lon Chaney Sr (THE UNHOLY THREE, THE UNKNOWN), but with FREAKS Browning took things to a whole new level. The cast is populated with genuine “abnormalities of nature”, legless and armless wonders, bearded ladies and skeletal men, a crawling human torso and microcephalic pinheads, parading across the screen to shock and frighten the audience. Yet it’s not the “freaks” that are the monsters in this movie, but two specimens of human physical perfection, their healthy bodies hosting malice and murder.

The film opens with a sideshow barker drawing a crowd to a horror hidden in a box, victim of what happens when you dishonor the code of the freaks – “offend one and you offend them all”. A flashback introduces us to the members of this dark carnival…

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4 Shots From 4 Films: Special Tod Browning Edition


4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films is all about letting the visuals do the talking.

This October, I am going to be using our 4 Shots From 4 Films feature to pay tribute to some of my favorite horror directors, in alphabetical order!  That’s right, we’re going from Argento to Zombie in one month!

Today’s director is Tod Browning, who started his career during the silent era, ended it in the sound era, and was responsible for some of the most important horror and suspense films of both!

4 Shots From 4 Films

West of Zanzibar (1928, dir by Tod Browning)

Dracula (1931, dir by Tod Browning)

Freaks (1932, dir by Tod Browning)

Mark of the Vampire (1935, dir by Tod Browning)

 

Horror Film Review: The Devil-Doll (dir by Tod Browning)


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Paul Lavond (Lionel Barrymore) was just your ordinary Parisian bank owner until he was wrongly convicted of robbery and murder.  Sentenced to Devil’s Island and estranged from his beloved daughter, Lorraine (Maureen O’Sullivan), Paul spends 16 years plotting how to clear his name and progressively growing more bitter and angry.

He also befriends a scientist named Marcel (Henry B. Walthall).  Marcel has figured out the formula for shrinking people.  He’s convinced that shrunken people will eat less, use less fossil fuels, and take up a lot less space on the planet.  They’ll probably also be less likely to wage war on each other.  That’s right — the secret to world peace is shrinking the population.

However, Paul has other plans for that shrinking formula!  What better way to clear his name and seek revenge than by using a shrunken army of henchmen?

Uhmmm — okay, it sounds a little bit overcomplicated to me but who am I to doubt the wisdom of Lionel Barrymore?

(Yes, I know he’s Paul Lavond but, honestly, Lionel Barrymore is Lionel Barrymore regardless of who he’s playing.)

Anyway, Paul and Marcel escape from Devil’s Island but Marcel dies shortly afterward.  Paul, however, forms a partnership with Marcel’s widow, Maleta (Rafaela Ottiano).  Disguising himself as an elderly woman, Paul returns to Paris.  Not only does he use his disguise to watch over his daughter (who doesn’t realize that the kindly old woman is actually her father) but he also starts to develop quite a reputation for selling incredibly realistic dolls…

The Devil-Doll is an odd little mix of comedy and melodrama and, to be honest, it’s a bit too uneven to really work.  That said, the film is definitely worth watching just for the sight of Lionel Barrymore playing an elderly woman.  (Classic film lovers will immediately notice that, when in disguise, Lionel greatly resembles his sister, Ethel.)  This Christmas, when I’m watching It’s A Wonderful Life for the 100th time and Mr. Potter is cackling and plotting to put the Bailey Building and Loan out of business, I’ll have a hard time not thinking about The Devil-Doll.

The Devil-Doll was one of the final films to be directed by the legendary horror specialist, Tod Browning.  I’ve read that Browning’s later films suffered because Browning plunged into depression after the death of Lon Chaney, Sr. and he never quite recovered.  And, really, The Devil-Doll feels like a film that would have been perfect for Chaney’s unique talent.

But, that said, Lionel Barrymore appears to be having a lot of fun as Paul and his performance is the main reason to watch the film today.

Horror Film Review: Dracula (dir by Tod Browning)


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It pains me to say it but, of all the classic Universal monster films, Dracula is probably my least favorite.

I hate to say that because I love vampires and I love the story of Dracula.  I have read the book several times, I’ve seen several productions of the stage play, and I’ve seen a countless number of  Dracula films.  (Christopher Lee’s version is my favorite.)  The 1931 version of Dracula — while hardly being the first vampire movie — was still a very important moment in the history of horror cinema.  Every vampire film that has come out since owes a debt of gratitude to Dracula.  Bela Lugosi’s performance set the standard against which almost all vampires are judged.

I always want to love Dracula but … no, the film just doesn’t work for me.

Of course, we all know the film’s story.  Dracula (Bela Lugosi) comes to England from Transylvania.  He turns Lucy (Frances Dade) into a vampire and attempts to do the same thing to Mina Seward (Helen Chandler).  Mina’s fiancée, John Harker (David Manners) and father, Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston), attempt to stop him with the help of Prof. Van Helsing (Edward van Sloan).  Renfield (Dwight Frye) serves as Dracula’s servant and eats bugs.  Dracula tells us that he does not drink … wine.  He talks about the music of the night.  His eyes get wide at the sight of blood and he hides his face when confronted with a cross.

Of course, though Dracula may have first appeared in Bram Stoker’s novel, the film is actually an adaptation of a stage play that was based on the novel.  That’s the main problem with Dracula as a movie.  It’s a very stagey film, one that never seems to quite break free of its theatrical origins.  It’s a rather slow-moving film, one that is full of awkward scene transitions and moments of dead air.  One need only compare it to F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu or Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr to see just how visually bland Dracula really is.

Dracula‘s blandness is especially surprising when you consider that the direction is credited to Tod Browning.  Browning directed some of the best horror films of the silent era and, after the release of Dracula, he went on to direct the brilliant Freaks.  Dracula doesn’t feel like a Browning film but perhaps that’s because it actually wasn’t.  Reportedly, Tod Browning was struggling with depression during the filming of Dracula and was rarely on set.  Instead, most of the film’s direction was handled by cinematographer Karl Freund.  Freund had never directed a film before (though he would later acquit himself quite well with The Mummy) and Dracula‘s flaws were largely a result of that inexperience.

Well, that may be true or it may not.  Here’s what we can say for sure: Bela Lugosi’s work as Dracula holds up surprisingly well.  When seen today, it can be difficult to fairly judge Lugosi’s performance.  We’ve seen so many parodies and bad imitations that it’s difficult to imagine the impact that it may have had on audiences in 1931.  Lugosi was recreating his stage performance and it’s a very theatrical performance but, at the same time, Dracula is a character that doesn’t demand or require subtlety.  There’s a power to Lugosi’s performance.  Maybe it’s the piercing stare or the unbridled blood lust that seems to be reflected in his eyes.  Maybe it’s the accent.  Maybe it’s the haughty and arrogant way that he carries himself.  Whatever it is, it works.

No, Dracula does not hold up as well as you might hope.  But Bela Lugosi’s performance remains a classic.

4 Shots From Horror History: Dracula, Frankenstein, Vampyr, White Zombie


This October, I’m going to be doing something a little bit different with my contribution to 4 Shots From 4 Films.  I’m going to be taking a little chronological tour of the history of horror cinema, moving from decade to decade.

Today, we take a look at the start of the 1930s.

4 Shots From 4 Films

Dracula (1931, dir by Tod Browning)

Dracula (1931, dir by Tod Browning)

Frankenstein (1931, dir by James Whale)

Frankenstein (1931, dir by James Whale)

Vampyr (1932, dir Carl Theodor Dryer)

Vampyr (1932, dir Carl Theodor Dryer)

White Zombie (1932, dir by Victor Halperin)

White Zombie (1932, dir by Victor Halperin)

4 Shots From Horror History: The Phantom of the Opera, Faust, London After Midnight, The Fall of the House of Usher


This October, I’m going to be doing something a little bit different with my contribution to 4 Shots From 4 Films.  I’m going to be taking a little chronological tour of the history of horror cinema, moving from decade to decade.

Today, we take a look at the latter half of the 1920s.

4 Shots From 4 Films

The Phantom of the Opera (1925, dir by Rupert Julian)

The Phantom of the Opera (1925, dir by Rupert Julian)

Faust (1926, dir by F.W. Murnau)

Faust (1926, dir by F.W. Murnau)

London After Midnight (1927, dir by Tod Browning)

London After Midnight (1927, dir by Tod Browning)

The Fall of the House of Usher (1928, dir by Jean Epstein)

The Fall of the House of Usher (1928, dir by Jean Epstein)

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 6: All-Star Horror Edition!


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As many of you Dear Readers know by now, classic horror has always been my favorite genre. From the Universal Monsters to Bug-Eyed Aliens to Freddie Krueger and friends (fiends?), a good scary movie is a good time! Even a bad scary movie can be fun, if I’m in the right mood. So here are six (count ’em), yes six horror films I’ve recently watched, with some great horror actors and directors at their best (and worst!):

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MIRACLES FOR SALE

(MGM 1939, D: Tod Browning)

The first great horror director, Browning teamed with Lon Chaney Sr. in the silent era to shock audiences with films like LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT and THE UNHOLY THREE. He kicked off the Golden Age of Sound Horror with DRACULA, followed by the controversial FREAKS. MIRACLES FOR SALE was his last film, and while it’s more of a locked-room mystery, it’s loaded with those bizarre Browning…

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4 Shots From 4 Films: Dracula, Island of Lost Souls, The Black Cat, Son of Frankenstein


Bela Lugosi was born 133 years ago today.  These 4 shots from 4 films are dedicated to him.

4 Shots From 4 Films

Dracula (1931, directed by Tod Browning)

Dracula (1931, directed by Tod Browning)

Island of Lost Souls (1932, directed by Erle C. Kenton)

Island of Lost Souls (1932, directed by Erle C. Kenton)

The Black Cat (1934, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer)

The Black Cat (1934, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer)

Son of Frankenstein (1939, directed by Rowland V. Lee)

Son of Frankenstein (1939, directed by Rowland V. Lee)