Thursday, September 24, 2009

House of Silent Scream: After midnight.

That the mind behind "When Is Evil Cool?" (the 2009 winner of the just now created "Best Blog Name Award) is both genuinely funny and genuinely interesting would be enough to recommend that fine blog to any and all folks who dig what I do here.

But wait, there's more! Have I mentioned Warrior Wednesdays: a post series dedicated to the single greatest film about tragic death of community organizer Cyrus, the One and Only, and the consequences thereof?

Now how much would expect to pay? Don't answer yet. Because you're a great crowd, wiec? is going to throw in an extra blog. That's right, a whole other blog, free, gratis, for nothing, just cause we like your face. When you dig on wiec?, you also get "Random Picture Day," a blog with twice the brilliance of your average blog, without all those pesky words!

Now how much would you expect to pay? $10.99? $56.23? $1.7 billion?

All this can be yours for the low, low price of reading the following guest post in our third anniversary Silent Scream Series. Boys and girls, I introduce wiec?




When I was a little kid we’d visit my grandma in New Jersey about every other month. The car ride was very long and so my dad would pull over to a deli called The WaWa and let me pick out some comic books from the rack to read on the long ride home. I’d usually grab a Green Lantern or an issue of Rom the Space Knight. They also had a magazine there in New Jersey that I could never find at home at the local five and dimes. The magazine was called Famous Monsters of Movieland. Whenever I saw it I definitely used to snatch it up.

For an 8 year old kid Famous Monsters was a treasure trove of black and white goodness. The pictures were from mostly black and white horror movies from yesteryear. It had articles about said movies but I usually just skimmed those. The best part, were all the photos. I used to cut them out of the magazine very carefully when I got home from Grandma’s and taped them to the wall. I had a huge collage going that went from the floor to the ceiling and practically covered an entire wall of my room. There were Frankensteins of all stripes. Draculas everywhere. Tons of creatures and ghouls great and small from movies I had never heard of. One of my favorites was this picture from a movie called London After Midnight.

It seems the writers and editors of Famous Monsters really liked Lon Chaney. They were especially fond of his portrayal of a vampire in London After Midnight. It’s easy to see why. The scraggly hair popping out from under the top hat really made him stand out. The wide unblinking eyes and the jagged teeth stuck in a perpetual smile made him seem cartoonishly ghoulish. Chaney’s vampire was one of the freakier looking portrayals of a vamp out there. 9 out of every 10 issues of Famous Monsters featured the vampire from London After Midnight in one form or another. And 9 out of 10 times that picture was cut out and taped to my wall.

The story to London After Midnight is a pretty silly one though. The movie is not a straight up vampire flick. At first it seems like it might be a sort of Twilight Zoney sort of Tales from the Crypty kind of affair but it quickly dissolves into a who done it and why with a bunch of over the top, unbelievable detective work that would have no place in either the Jessica Fletcher or the Colombo playbooks of detecting.

In other words the story is a bit hard to follow but I’ll do my best to explain it. It starts off with an old man who is found murdered in his home. A detective (played by Lon Chaney) from Scotland Yards is dispatched to investigate. It is apparent that it was suicide after a note is found. The detective is skeptical but life goes on and the investigation is called off. 5 years later the old mans house is empty and in a state of disrepair seeming to be all but abandoned. All of a sudden a creepy guy in a top hat (Chaney) and a pale woman dressed in a long robe are seen prancing around the old man’s yard.



I was going to spoil the rest of this movie for you (and I still am) but I’m going to avoid a play by play account of the events. Mostly, I’m not going to do this because the events of the movie make no sense. I mean, it is just such a silly story. Lon Chaney plays the detective sent to investigate this mysterious stranger (who is played by Chaney). All the suspects of the old man’s murder 5 years back all seem to live in a house next door to the house were the murder took place and were the stranger now lives (the movie shows that the stranger has bought the dead man’s house’s deed). Then it appears that the old man is still alive and living in his house and that stranger and his silent female partner are vampires. A bunch of talking between the suspects goes down (that all goes nowhere. Remember this is a silent movie after all). The detective hypnotizes all the suspects. The “vampire” skulks around with a lantern. The hypnotized suspect reenacts the murder and is caught red handed by Chaney’s detective. Case closed.

“Huh? “ you might be saying to yourself. None of that makes sense.

I’ll explain: Chaney’s detective figured the dead old man didn’t kill himself 5 years back. He was murdered. How does he know this? He just knew. He then waits 5 years and comes back dressed as the vampire stranger. Buys the dead old man’s house. Hires a guy who looks like the dead old man to live there. Hires a girl to play his vampire wife (just because) and the two of them do all their skulking about to make the suspects next door nervous. Because the suspects are nervous they hire Chaney’s detective character to investigate. He investigates and hypnotizes them all and then waits. Under hypnosis he figures which ever of the suspects originally murdered the old man will try it again with old man decoy he hired to live in the house. He figures right and arrives just in the nick of time. In other words, the stuff of nonsense.

You might be wondering what the point to this movie was. The story is pretty thread bare in the logic department and when it’s all said and done makes zero sense. The critics when it was originally released didn’t much like it and most audiences where left confused. However the movie is considered to be a minor silent movie classic. The reason why is it’s history and place in silent picture lore plus some of the weird events that surrounded it. Also the iconic make up gimmicks Chaney used to portray the vampire stranger made it a stand out and a favorite to silent era fans over the years.

Instead of trying to make sense of the actual story to London After Midnight let’s look at the story behind the story or film rather London after Midnight. Here are 5 things I uncovered…

1) London After Midnight is one of the silent era’s most important “lost” films. A lost film and there are plenty from the silent era, are movies that were lost or destroyed over time. Over the years studios would make movies that would disappear from their vaults due to theft or were sadly in hindsight junked by studios to make room in their vaults for newer films. Other lost films are gone because the nitrate in the actual film they used back in the silent era was very flammable. Fires in studio vaults would happen often and would wipe out tons of archived movies. Also the nitrate film they used back then was very unstable and if not stored at the right temperature the film could deteriorate quickly. Movies would literally rot inside their canisters.

Also London After Midnight was made before TV and video. Most studios didn’t see the point of keeping and archiving movies after their original theatrical run. The storing and archiving of old movies was expensive too. Sadly it is believed London After Midnight was destroyed in a fire at the MGM studios in the mid 1960’s. There are no surviving copies of it to be seen anywhere. Next to Erich von Stroheim’s 10 hr long film Greed, London after Midnight is considered one of the most sought after of the lost films.



2) The make up design for Chaney’s vampire stranger is considered by some to be an example of his best make up work. Lon Chaney was known as “the man of a 1,ooo faces.” He solidified his rep with the stuff he did to himself in Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre
Dame. Early works like his portrayal of a legless and abusive gangster in The Penalty and as an armless knife thrower (he used his feet) in The Unknown showed Chaney would put himself through anything to get a good performance out of himself.

The vampire stranger is one his best loved characters. The frightening look of the character was what fans of the movie really liked. Even though the character spends much of the movie skulking around hallways and doing very little else (in other words no murdering) the work Chaney did to himself to get the character out was quite stunning. Chaney made special thin wire circles (like lenseless monocles) that he fit into the inside of his eyelids to get the hypnotic googly eye effect and wore special wire attachments inside his mouth and the sharp teeth dentures that held his mouth in that perpetual fanged up grin. Both were said to be very painful for him. Also the way the vampire stranger walked was quite creepy. He had a sort of stooped over gait that made him look dangerous and sinister. Movie experts speculated that Groucho Marx famous walk was fashioned after Lon Chaney’s vampire stranger.

London After Midnight also briefly showed Lon Chaney’s famous make up kit. The kit was a treasure trove of simple gadgets and makeup that he used to pull off some his beloved characters through the years. It is shown briefly when Chaney’s character explains to the folks in the movie how he dressed up like a vampire. Chaney’s make up kit now resides in The Los Angeles County Museum where it was donated for safe keeping after his passing. Many consider it to be the central artifact in the history of film makeup effects.

3) London After Midnight was written and directed by early horror and thriller director Tod Browning. Tod Browning made several silent pictures with Lon Chaney and later went on to direct early talkies such as Freaks and Dracula with Bela Lugosi. While Chaney and Browning made much better films together in the years before London After Midnight it turns out Midnight was their most successful. It raked in $500,000 at the box office when it was released in 1927. Most reviewers (and me) thought it was not some of their best work. With some major changes to the plot, years later Browning remade Midnight into a talkie called Mark of the Vampire. Mark of the Vampire starred Lionel Barrymore as the detective and Bela Lugosi was cast as the vampire stranger.

4) London After Midnight was used as part of the defense for a man accused of murder in Hyde Park London in 1928. He saw the movie at his local theatre and claimed Chaney’s vampire stranger’s performance was so scary he temporarily lost his sanity and strangled a woman in the Park. His plea of temporary insanity was later rejected and he was found guilty and convicted and jailed for the crime.

5) If there are no existing copies of the movie out there how did I see it? How can you see London After Midnight if you are so inclined? In 2002, Turner Classic Movies commissioned famed film restoration producer Rick Schmidlin to produce a 45 minute long reconstruction of the film using only still photographs and production photos. Working from Browning’s script it was well received by horror fans. Most people who had seen the original theatrical version felt it was an adequate adaptation of the confusing film they saw back in 1927 and film historians praised Schmidlin for his efforts. He won a Rondo Award later that year for his work. It can be seen late at night around Halloween on AMC.

I saw Schmidlin’s piece when I rented The Lon Chaney Collection from Netflix, It’s a box set of some of Chaney’s best loved and lesser known films. On the same disc as London after Midnight is one of his lesser works The Unknown. That’s the one where Chaney plays a man pretending to be an armless knife thrower. He actually has his arms (and a hand with two thumbs. Oops spoiler alert.) who’s wanted in connection to some murders he may or may not have commited and is well worth checking out. Also on the same disc is a documentary of Lon Chaney career in movies and is narrated by Kenneth Branagh. The documentary is very through and is straight up excellent.

Thanks for reading my exhausting account of London After Midnight. And thanks to CRwM for letting me blather on about it. Good Night everyone.

8 comments:

Jonny Metro said...

wiec?,

I was planning on writing up an account of this film for my Cryptopopology series of posts. Looks like you beat me to the punch! Ah, well. You sounded more knowledgeable that I ever could have, anyway.

--J/Metro

L. F. Chaney said...

Please do write it anyway, Mr. Metro. I so enjoy reading the younger generation's take on my work.

And to Mr. CRWM——

Although the previous is not exactly how I would describe the story of "London After Midnight," I suppose that it's close enough.

Thank you for remembering fondly this spirited, old performer.

Yours truly,

L. C.

CRwM said...

Mr. Chaney,

The above was actually written by wiec?, the man with punctuation in his very name. Any questions as to its accuracy should be directed towards him.

Still, I'm honored you stopped by.

L. F. Chaney said...

Mr. CRWM,

The honor is mine, sir.

Humbly,

L. C.

Carl (ILHM) said...

A most excellent contribution, and now I can FINALLY add LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT to my que since I have never been able to figure out where that image of Chaney came from. I love the mix of history, review, and personal annectdote

L. F. Chaney said...

http://profile.myspace.com/leonidas_chaney

You'll find many more pictures at the internet address cited, including The Man in the Beaver Hat.

wiec? said...

JMetro- i agree with L.F. you should do your write up on London Ater Midnight as well. plenty of room for everyone.

L.F. Chaney- my account of the events in London After Midnight was a bit bare bones but i thought i covered the gist well enough. it's a very intricate story but remember i saw the reconstructed slide show that was only 45 min long and not the whole movie that had a 1 hr and 1/2 running time. that said i did the best i could with what i had.

CRwM- i was honored to be a guest blogger on ANTSS. it was fun.

Carl- thanks for the kind words and i think you should add the whole Chaney collection to ye olde queue.

L. F. Chaney said...

The original picture is comprised of seven reels and has a running time of 69 minutes.

If you are interested, one of my MySpace friends is selling a screenplay transcription on Ebay. You will find it by using the site's store search option.