While I didn’t have a lot of time to work on the site over the summer, I did find time to fall completely and totally in love with a sexy little show called True Blood. I’ve always enjoyed vampires, but I am a little bit picky when it comes to the subject. (I find Twilight offensive in so very many ways). But True Blood is just all kinds of awesome. And it made me think about all the great vampire movies that came out of the classic era. Of course there are the well known ones, like Dracula with Bela Lugosi, and the silent masterpiece Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. But there are some pretty good vampire movies that aren’t too well known.  So, in honor of my True Blood love, and the fact that the second season will be over in less than two weeks, I’ve decided to write about two of my favorite obscure classic vampire films. One lost silent, and its remake.

London After Midnight (Todd Browning, 1927)
Sadly, the only print of London After Midnight was destroyed in a fire in the 1960s. The only material that exists are several publicity shots and a shooting script. This was enough to create a very thorough reconstruction, however.

The film stars Lon Chaney, easily one of the finest actors of the silent era. Really, one of the finest actors in film history. His makeup is, as usual, wonderful, and even through stills you can tell that his character is quite chilling.

The leading man in this movie is Conrad Nagel. Regular readers of this site will know that I’m a huge fan of his. I think that’s one of the saddest things about the loss of this film. Nagel was a wonderful actor, but he’s so little known today, and a lot of his films are lost. It’s just a huge shame that this is yet another of his performances that’s forever gone.

So, even though the film is lost, a very good reconstruction exists. From the shooting script we can see that it has a pretty good story. From its publicity stills, we can tell that it was probably quite creepy. And the presence of Chaney and Nagel assure that the acting was good.

Mark of the Vampire (Todd Browning, 1935)
Mark of the Vampire is a remake of London After Midnight. Being made by the same director, it is apparently an extremely faithful remake, almost shot for shot.

It isn’t a brilliant movie, but I think it’s a lot better than its IMDb rating would have you believe. It’s a little bit hammy, but at the end of the day Todd Browning really knew horror, and despite the ham, the most has a wonderful atmosphere.

It also has an incredible cast. Lionel Barrymore and Bela Lugosi are they big names in this one, and both give good performances. That’s to be expected from them, though, especially Barrymore, who was really never anything but good. The rest of the cast is filled with wonderful character actors. Elizabeth Allan is the female lead, and Lionel Atwill and Jean Hersholt play support.

By Katie Richardson

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Year: 1927

Director: Frank Borzage

Cast: Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, Gladys Brockwell

I haven’t seen a ton of silent pictures but more than the average film goer. People in the Bay Area are blessed by having an old movie house — The Stanford Theatre — which is the only place in the vicinity that shows silents accompanied by a live Wurlitzer player. Back in February, I had the fortune to screen Seventh Heaven and it just so happened to be my first silent witnessed under those conditions. Simply put, seeing the 1927 Best Picture winner ranks among my finest motion picture viewings. There are certain movies you see — Jaws, Apocalypse Now, and Mulholland Dr. come to mind — where you are stunned by the time you vacate the theatre. Borzage’s spectacular love story impacted me to that extreme.

I was somewhat skeptical on the way to The Stanford. Katie is always pimping out Borzage’s work and Seventh Heaven is one of her favorites. Having seen A Farewell to Arms, Man’s Castle, and Liliom I was somewhat underwhelmed. Especially in the case of the latter in which Charles Farrell was a stiff. Fortunately, he was working in the presence of a great actress in this film. Janet Gaynor’s portrayal of Diane is one for the ages and it earned her an Oscar. She plays a street urchin/prostitute in Paris during the days immediately preceding WWI. Chico (Farrell) is a sewer worker. Macho and full of braggadocio, the blue-collar laborer also hides a big heart. Diane and her sister Nana struggle under squalid living conditions. The older woman also harbors an addiction to absinthe. Gaynor’s character is timid and soft spoken. Nana sadistically preys on her pliancy by beating her sister 24/7.

One day the sisters’ wealthy uncle and his wife come to rescue the girls provided they have not dishonored themselves in some unsavory way. In a pivotal moment, Diane cannot betray her honest nature and she confesses to having prostituted herself. A golden opportunity lost, Nana gives Gaynor’s waif her most vicious whipping yet on the street and if not for the gallant Chico’s intervention, probably Diane’s last. Farrell’s good samaritan takes the young woman back to his attic apartment. This is one of the film’s best shots as the two are shown ascending seven flights of stairs from a sideways perspective. As Chico is fond of saying, “I may work in the sewer but I live among the stars!” Borzage does a beautiful job of slowly showing this man and woman fall in love. Diane eventually breaks through the gruff exterior of her savior and he proposes marriage. I’m a big fan of facial close-ups, especially on females. There are several moments during Seventh Heaven where Gaynor’s expression had my waterworks flowing: the first time Chico says he loves her, the look of unfettered bliss during the marriage ceremony, and the scene when the woman’s husband returns from battle are all priceless.

Borzage does two things to really show how the couple’s sum is greater than its parts. Subtle lighting and skillful musical timing project the idea that Chico and Diane’s union is a metaphysical one. A relationship that can transcend any economic hardship, war, or physical malady. Married at exactly 11:00am, they make a pact to always think of the other when a clock strikes that hour. Even apart the two can feel their spouse’s presence at that time of the morning. A recurring title card througout the picture reads: “Chico—Diane—Heaven!” I can’t improve upon that. I saw Vidor’s The Crowd — often said to be the second best silent behind Murnau’s Sunrise — not two weeks later and wasn’t nearly as impressed as I was by Borzage’s simple Parisian tale of romance. Seeing Seventh Heaven at The Stanford was not only one of my favorite film going experiences ever but nights out in general.