A generally humorous change of pace from the lovingly detailed grotesqueries on display throughout Film Forum’s Tod Browning festival, the Dracula auteur’s 1935 entry Mark of the Vampire, which plays tonight, offers up a welcome comic flipside to the director’s 1931 bloodsucker classic. Riffing on the earlier film’s setting (a moody Mitteleuropean village), thematic oppositions (scientific skepticism vs. naive credulity) and iconic presence (Bela Lugosi, in a near-wordless cameo, shows up to parody his signature role), Vampire has its share of fun deflating the measured seriousness that Browning brought to the Universal assignment, particularly in a comic punch-line finale where the whole artifice of the set-up and, by extension, that of the earlier film, is pitilessly exposed.
Essentially a shaggy-dog story with an overelaborate reveal, Vampire gets by as much on its famed “atmospherics” (a common descriptor applied to the film) as on its rather modest comic ambitions. The movie’s oneiric moodiness derives from both the shadow-sensitive lighting of DP James Wong Howe — witness the way he brings bars of shade out of the background to highlight a sinister figure — and the near constant howl of a very wildlife on the film’s soundtrack. Dwelling on such typically “horrible” standbys as graveyards and cobweb-streaked cellars, Browning and his team reinvest the familiar settings with a renewed sense of what made them memorable in the first place and then do their models one better by introducing Carol Borland’s proto-waif vampiress, an ashen oval of a face emerging eerily out of the darkness.