Halloween used to be the season for vintage horror films. A favorite choice was Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera or Bela Lugosi in Dracula. But times have changed. After all, there are so many newer, frightening movies being made with fast-paced action and sophisticated special effects that send chills down your spine.
While Trick or Treaters and their parents will be watching Get Out, Carrie, Beetlejuice, or even as old a classic holiday favorite as The Exorcist, let’s look back – far back, to the pioneering genre films of the extraordinary master of disguise, the “Man of a Thousand Faces,” Lon Chaney and director Tod Browning. The two partnered on silent film productions from 1919 to Chaney’s death in 1930.
They made the perfect pair because both were interested in creating topsy turvy worlds, environments and characters that made audiences uncomfortable. They began by making crime dramas that included oddball characters who often inhabited urban slums. They added exotic characters, such as Chinese immigrants who dressed and moved in oddly stylized fashions. No doubt, looking back one hundred years, they were preying on the racist fears of the movie-going public.
An early effort of theirs, the 1920 crime drama Outside the Law, has just come out on Blu-ray format from Kino Lorber. It’s a 4K restoration by Universal Pictures who originally produced the film. Not only did Universal create the film, they thought so highly of it that it was placed in their prestige category of releases called Universal Jewel. Be aware that about an hour into the 76-minute film, there is nitrate film decomposition. This cannot be overcome. What we have on this disc is as good as survives.
In Outside the Law, Chaney plays two roles, a villainous crook named Black Mike Sylva and an exotic Chinese servant called Ah Wing . He is effective in both roles. The film’s plot revolves around a jewel heist by a young couple and the strength of the teachings of Confucius which lead them to repent. There is plenty of action including a gun and knife fight, some heart-rending scenes with a small child, and some romance, to boot!
As the decade of the 1920s unfolded, Chaney and Browning partnered on of movies featuring mentally unbalanced characters that were physically damaged, outside the norm. Both worked separately and together in this vein. Among Chaney’s most significant films are The Penalty, about an underworld boss whose legs were cut off at the knees for no good reason when he was a boy, and The Unknown, directed by Browning, in which an escaped criminal hides inside a circus and pretends he has no arms in order to attract the attention of the ringmaster’s daughter, played by a young Joan Crawford.
Browning had a prolific career in the twenties, topping it off with the legendary vampire film, Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi. In 1932, he overstepped the bounds of civility when he made Freaks, a frightening tale about a circus troupe of what was once brutally referred to as sideshow freaks, a woman who pretends to love one of the troupe and then marries him for his inheritance. She is punished in a way that no audience member had imagined could be shown on the screen. Browning’s career suffered after that debacle, but he went on to make two classic horror films, Mark of the Vampire and The Devil-Doll.
The Chaney-Browning film that has remained a lost gem, whose whereabouts has perplexed film lovers for decades, is London After Midnight. There exists an attempt to reconstruct this film using stills, but London After Midnight remains one of the Holy Grails of film archivists world over. This Halloween, as viewers praise Brian De Palma and Tim Burton, raise a glass of apple cider to the ground-breaking films of Lon Chaney and Tod Browning!
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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