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Eyes Like Burning Coals: Lugosi Beyond Dracula

Recently in Heather Drain’s excellent piece on Count Yorga, Vampire, she referred to Robert Quarry’s character as a “leisure suit Lugosi,” which is a phrase I’ve been unable to get out of my head. It’s so apt because we all know exactly, vividly, what it means: despite (or perhaps because of for some of you) his ‘70s attire, Quarry is able to channel some of Lugosi’s signature charisma, a hypnotizing brand of charm that exceeds the bounds of conventional handsomeness. This inherently sinister yet seductive quality is of course this is what made Lugosi’s signature role, the titular Count in Dracula, so iconic, and what made him such a convincing vampire. The somewhat tragic arc of Lugosi’s career is the stuff of genre legend, where his great performances in films like White Zombie (1932) and The Black Cat (1934) are largely ignored or forgotten by mainstream critics and by pop culture at large.

And while I also love some of the campier performances that play up other—perhaps more grotesque—facets of his personality, such as Island of Lost Souls (1932), The Devil Bat (1940), and The Body Snatcher (1945), today I’d like to highlight his other vampiric roles. It’s easy to forget that in addition to demented doctor, mad scientist, deformed assistant, and so on, Lugosi returned to the screen as a vampire after Dracula. (Though it’s incredible to believe in this age of sequels, remakes, and reimaginings, that Lugosi was never roped in to return as the Count to any of the official entries in the Dracula series, with the loose exception of something like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). With that in mind, I’m going to explore two non-Dracula films where Lugosi starred as a vampire: Tod Browning’s Mark of the Vampire (1935) and Lew Landers’ Return of the Vampire (1943).

In Mark of the Vampire, a prominent Czech aristocrat, Sir Karell Borotyn (Holmes Herbert), is found dead in his home. Strange marks are discovered on his neck and, in keeping with a common local superstition, Borotyn’s doctors and his friend, Baron Otto (Jean Hersholt), suspect foul play from vampires. The Prague-based Inspector Neumann (Lionel Atwill) doesn’t believe them and begins searching for a human murderer. It just so happens that a suspicious family, Count Mora (Lugosi) and his daughter Luna (Caroll Borland), live in a spooky castle nearby and are suspected to be vampires by the locals. It seems that Sir Karell’s distraught and lovely young daughter, Irena (Elizabeth Allan), is next on Mora’s list, so occult expert Professor Zelen (Lionel Barrymore) is called in to protect Irena and help apprehend the culprits, whether undead or still alive.

While Dracula was a Universal film, interestingly Mark of the Vampire was produced by MGM; Return of the Vampire was likewise a Columbia Pictures outing. In a sense, both films can be seen as attempts by less prolific studios—at least when it came to genre films—to cash in on the success of Dracula. In this case, MGM were able to get Dracula director Tod Browning on board, for one of the last films of his career, as well as celebrated cinematographer James Wong Howe. For my money, the wonderful atmosphere is nearly on par with Browning’s Dracula—which was lensed by the master, Karl Freund. There are numerous shots of a spooky castle, fog drenched graveyards, empty coffins, bats, and cape-wearing vampires. Luna seems to be the focus of much of Howe’s cinematography, with creepy shots of her looking in windows, wandering through the mist, and even floating in on batwings.

Luna has little dialogue and at times seems mannequin-like, but there is no doubt she is the troubled, possibly tragic erotic center of the film. She is also at the heart of the film’s two-fold controversy. First is that Mark of the Vampire has a rather notorious twist—which I don’t feel bad spoiling, as the film is over 80 years old—in which a surprise ending reveals that Count Mora and his daughter Luna are not vampires, but paid actors involved in a scheme to reveal the real murderer. This has led to Mark of the Vampire as being described as a remake of Browning’s legendary lost film, London After Midnight (1927), which apparently shared this conceit (though I don’t think Mark of the Vampire was intended to be a direct remake). This is also a central component of much fantastique literature (particularly the French variety) where seemingly supernatural elements are later revealed to have rational—if completely bizarre and/or surreal—explanations.

And thus, to me, Mark of the Vampire is one of the few great American fantastique films of the ‘30s (along with other entries by directors like James Whale and Karl Freund, who made the mother of all these with Mad Love in 1935). Along with another of his titles like The Unknown (1927), Freaks (1932), or The Devil-Doll (1936), Mark of the Vampire is not quite a horror film. Part of my love for Browning is rooted in the fact that he seemed more interested in making films that were strange, unsettling, grotesque, and horrifying—often without adhering all that closely to what we would come to understand as horror genre rules. Films like Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary (1927) and The Old Dark House (1932) follow a similar pattern.

But what makes Mark of the Vampire particularly strange is the allegedly cut subplot—totally up to 15 minutes of excised footage—involving an incestuous relationship between Lugosi’s Count Mora and his daughter Luna. Mora is shown to have a mark on his head, which is allegedly meant to be a bullet hole: he apparently killed himself over his relationship with Luna (and thus returned as a vampire). I don’t think this would have fit in with the existing film, but it certainly would have made the proceedings a lot stranger and more uncomfortable, considering that Mora and Luna’s relationship is a parallel for Irena’s relationship with her dead (and supposedly vampiric) father. While this has never been fully confirmed, it seems several critics and biographers agree that this subplot was in the script, at the very least, and seems to have been the brainchild of novelist Guy Endore (The Werewolf of Paris), who regularly collaborated with Browning.

Far more serious and also less lurid in its approach is Columbia’s Return of the Vampire, which, if possible, is even more neglected than Mark of the Vampire. To be fair, World War Two was not a particularly robust time for horror films. Britain effectively put a black list on them and aside from a handful of exceptions—such as the dazzling output of producer Val Lewton for RKO—genre films in the United States were mostly silly escapist fare. Return of the Vampire, though, is like a particularly thrilling slap across the face: one that shocks you, but also one that maybe turns you on a little. Though there’s a prologue set during the First World War, the majority of the film takes place during WWII, namely the London Blitz. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, suffice to say that it is a Nazi bomb that unearths the tomb of vampire Armand Tesla (Lugosi), who is then pitted against scientist Lady Jane Ainsley (Frieda Inescort). Acting as a sort of female Van Helsing, she is determined to save her son’s fiancee (Nina Foch), once a child victim of Tesla. I know that limited plot description sounds like my own personal wet dream, but I swear to god I didn’t make it up.

Tod Browning and Jame Wong Howe be damned, because Return of the Vampire is one of the most atmospheric vampire films I’ve had the pleasure to see. The script—from Universal horror sequel stalwart Griffin Jay and Kurt Neumann, director of The Fly (1958)—steals unmercilessly from the wonderful Dracula sequel, Dracula’s Daughter (1936), but the direction and cinematography benefits from the involvement of three of the most industrious workhorses in ‘40s cinema. Director Lew Landers churned out adventure films and later television episodes, while cinematographers L. William O’Connell and John Stumar have more than 300 film credits between them. My earlier joke aside, it would be unfair to compare this to the work of an early genre auteur like Browning, but there is something magical about Return of the Vampire, perhaps because of its efficiency and workmanlike ethic.

While I think the film is attempting to be an unofficial follow up to Dracula, it isn’t required to follow any of the rules established by Stoker’s novel or Universal’s first film. For example: Tesla is a centuries old “vampire expert” (sort of like if you made Van Helsing into a vampire), his child victim survived (in the film’s prologue) but is drawn to him as an adult, effectively allowing the film to explore a new angle of vampire mythology. As with Dracula’s Daughter, science and psychiatry play an important role, but Return of the Vampire really ups its game by including a werewolf assistant.

Yes, I said a werewolf assistant.

Likely inspired by the Universal sequels (such as Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman), the film throws in the typical skeptical policemen, in the form of a stubborn Scotland Yard detective (Miles Mander), but the sheer amount of fog, rolling across desolate graveyards and into stony crypts, outdoes many of the iconic Universal visuals—with the possible exception of The Wolfman or the slightly later (and equally neglected) She-Wolf of London. Where the film really shocks is in its conclusion: the final death of Dracula, I mean Tesla, is accompanied by an early attempt at practical gore effects: his fucking face melts off (!). With these elements and its themes of trauma, female emanicipation, science, and rational evidence, it’s a strange beast compared to the more stolid Universal classics, but one well worth rediscovering. Both Return of the Vampire and Mark of the Vampire stand as testaments to Lugosi’s talent as a performer, reminding audiences almost a century after the fact that Dracula is not the sole proof of his mesmeric, vampiric powers.

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is Associate Editor of Diabolique Magazine and co-host of the Daughters of Darkness podcast. She's the editor of Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin from Spectacular Optical, and her book on Fritz Lang's M is forthcoming from Auteur Publishing.

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