FEBRUARY 15, 2013
If you're a horror fan who pays any attention to the classic era, then you probably know about the sad fate of London After Midnight, a 1927 silent film from Tod Browning that is seemingly forever lost after the last known print was destroyed in the horrible 1967 vault fire at MGM that also cost the "lives" of hundreds of films, shorts, and cartoons. Ever since, folks have been hunting down any possible lead in hopes of turning up another, though after almost 50 years I'm guessing it's a lost cause. However, dig deeper and you'll find out two other things: one, that the movie probably wasn't that good (per film historian William Everson, who saw it!), and two, it was remade as Mark Of The Vampire a mere eight years later, adding dialogue and Bela Lugosi.
As a vampire film, it's a pretty weak one, and even more so when you consider the last time Lugosi and Browning teamed up for a vampire movie, it turned out pretty good - the modern day equivalent would be Simon West and Nic Cage going from Con Air to Stolen. A big chunk of that is due to the ending, which I'll get into later, but even before that the scenes of Lugosi and the girl playing his vampire daughter Luna are fairly lame. They wander around slowly and remind you of Plan 9 (Vampira seems to have taken part of her inspiration from Luna), never kill anyone, and are never really that scary - their only saving grace are the fairly impressive special FX: the bats look pretty good!
However, it's also an Old Dark House movie, and on that level it works just fine. At 61 minutes you can't accuse it of being too padded, and a lot of it raced by - you'll swear it was only 45 minutes long! It pretty much follows the same sort of plot as all of them; someone dies, a bunch of folks get together in the big estate and try to solve the murder, creepy things are seen, clues are discovered... you know the drill. The hardest horror test in the world would be to match up titles to plot summaries of these sort of movies, as they make the slashers of 1981 look like the most widely diverse group of movies ever created. This one has more horror elements than usual, but whenever Lugosi isn't on-screen, it might as well be any of those poverty row films that are on the Horror Classics set.
Oh, and this may be the world's oldest cat scare (probably not, but if you can name one older than 1935, you win a no-prize!), as two of the men see the helmet on a knight costume appear to be opening/shutting on its own, as if was talking. After a few non-threatening moments of this, the helmet opens all the way to reveal a cat, who got in there somehow - god bless felines for being so mischievous, or else many a horror film would have to come up with another explanation for some sort of tomfoolery. And why do these old houses always have knight costumes anyway?
Oddly, the cat is actually foreshadowing the "fake scare" that is the entire movie. At the end, we discover that the vampires are actors, meant to cause some panic and get the real killer to confess his crime. Not only is it kind of an annoying twist on any level, but it renders nearly all of their scenes incomprehensible. They're hired for this one thing, but they apparently love their job, since they stay in character even when no one is looking, spy on the people who actually hired them, and attack an innocent guy not once but twice. A lot of horror movies with twists don't make a lot of sense once you start thinking about them, but since this is a remake there's really no excuse for such things - they had the opportunity to fix their mistakes (the original had the same twist) and if anything it just sounds like they made it worse. For example, in the original, Lon Chaney played the detective AND the vampire, whereas now that role is split into two (Lugosi and Lionel Atwill), rendering much of the plan pointless since he just hypnotizes the murderer anyway, giving the "vampires" almost no real point to even being there. To be fair, maybe some of this stuff made a bit more sense in the full version of the movie, as MGM removed nearly 20 minutes (also assumed lost forever), but from what I understand the bulk of the cut footage involved the (fake!) back-story of the vampires, which means it might have even been sillier had it been left in the film.
But it's fun, and it's interesting to see Browning being playful after Dracula and Freaks (the failure of the latter being why he didn't have the pull to keep MGM from editing the film), and likewise for Lugosi, who was not yet in decline (business changes at Universal the following year would be what sent him off into the poverty row stuff) - as dumb as the twist is, it's great to see him playing a regular guy at the end. Plus there are a ton of critters in the movie (rats, bugs, etc), which amused me, and at 61 minutes you can watch it while you eat your breakfast and get dressed in the morning, so that's nice.
What say you?