THE UNKNOWN (1927)

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Are you sitting comfortably?  Then we’ll begin.  Alonzo (Lon Chaney) is an armless knife thrower in a travelling carnival/circus who is passionately in love with his glamorous assistant, Nanon (Joan Crawford).  She is completely oblivious of Alonzo’s love and is more interested in turning away the affections of Malabar, the strong man, because he’s a rather tactile fellow, and she has a morbid fear of men’s hands.  However, unbeknown to everyone except his faithful assistant, Cojo, Alonzo is actually in possession of his arms and keeps them strapped to his body under his clothes in order to give the illusion of being armless.  What’s more, not only has he got two arms, he has three thumbs (I hope you’re following this) and, leaving a trail of murder behind him, cannot let anyone find out about this as it would reveal him as the murderer.  As he pursues his love of Nanon, Cojo points out to Alonzo that they will never be able to be together as, on their wedding night, she will find out that he has arms after all.  Realising this, he blackmails a renowned surgeon into amputating his arms – after all, he can use his feet in a similar way so he won’t miss them.

Oh, the things a man will do for the love of a woman.  Like amputating his arms.  Let’s face it, we’ve all done it.  No?  Oh, OK then.  Obviously things don’t quite go to Alonzo’s plan in this rather bizarre film from 1927, but then I guess you’re not surprised given the plot summary of the first half of the film.

This may well be Chaney’s best role, and is certainly one of director Tod Browning’s greatest efforts.  Browning is perhaps best known today as the director of Freaks (1932) and Dracula (1931), but it is his silent work that shows him at his best, especially when directing a film with a carnival setting such as this one.  This is a grotesque little film, and one that has a finale which wouldn’t be out of place in the “torture porn” cycle which has dominated the horror genre over the last decade, and still pulls quite a punch (excuse the pun) nearly eighty years after it was made.  Aside from Chaney, the film is also notable for Joan Crawford’s great performance in the role of Nanon, the object of Alonzo’s affections, with the New York Times stating that she “gives a most competent performance” (Hall, 1927: 17).  That’s actually quite a complement for the New York Times.

Thought lost for decades, The Unknown is a great (and often horrifying) watch.  It can be found only on region 1 DVD as part of “The Lon Chaney Collection” which comes with an entertaining feature length documentary on Chaney, a reconstruction of the lost film London By Night (Tod Browning, 1927) and two more feature length silent Chaney classics:  The Ace Of Hearts (Wallace Worsley, 1921) and Laugh, Clown, Laugh (Herbert Brenon, 1928).  Highly recommended.

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Dracula (1931) and the problems with restorations.

I have to admit that I started off by vowing that I wouldn’t buy the blu-ray boxed set of Universal horror films that emerged last year.  All signs were that the restorations were good, but did I really need them again?  And did I really want yet more duplication in my collection – after all, the DVD copies would have to be kept or I would lose all the sequels that they contain that the new set does not.  Still, Amazon offered it briefly at a very nice price, and so it now sits on my shelves.

I have yet to see all of the new restorations, but the ones I have seen look superb.  Dracula in particular has an image quality that is better that we ever could have hoped for, and the soundtrack has lost that loud hiss which has accompanied previous issues of the film.

Great news so far.

But there is a problem here, because the restoration of Dracula has only managed to emphasise that it really is not a very good film.  It’s a classic, yes.  And Lugosi’s Dracula is iconic.  And yet it is also a remarkably static film, directed with little directorial flourish by Tod Browning, and the script is often bland and leaden, and sadly based on a stage adaptation of the novel rather than the novel itself.  As such, despite being from the pre-code era, Dracula is a bowdlerised version of Stoker’s novel that is more creaky than the front door of Castle Dracula itself.

Saying these things is, I guess, almost blasphemous.  But I’m not saying these things purely for effect.  Other than Lugosi’s iconic portrayal of Dracula himself, the biggest appeal of the film was the atmosphere that oozed from the screen.  The problem while watching the new restoration is that we now realise that part of that atmosphere was due to the age and rather weathered nature of the film itself.  It is comforting and exciting in equal measure to watch an old horror classic late at night, perhaps at Hallowe’en or on a windy evening with the rain hitting against the windows.  But the atmosphere was in part due to the scratched print, the flickering picture, and the soundtrack that we have to strain our ears to hear.  In other words, part of the appeal was due to the fact the film was old and looked old.  With a sparkling print and a decent soundtrack, the atmospheric element has simply vanished, and all we are left with is a great restoration of a mediocre film.

The same cannot be said for the others in the set I have worked through so far.  But they are, on the whole, much better films that Dracula.  Even the Spanish version of Dracula, filmed with a different cast on the same set, benefits from the restoration it has received.  But, again, it is a much better film than the English-language version, despite the fact it lacks Lugosi.

I can imagine that I would feel the same way about White Zombie if ever a well-preserved print was discovered and then restored.  Part of the appeal of that film, and part of what makes it so damn unsettling, is the poor state of the print itself, with it’s crackling soundtrack and eerily worn, often blurred, visuals.  Looking at a print that is so bright and shiny that it could have been made yesterday would ultimately ruin part of the enjoyment of the film.

There is a peculiar enjoyment to be had from watching not particularly good, creaky old films in worn prints.  Perhaps they remind us of when we first saw the film, late at night on an old analogue TV twenty or thirty years ago when we were twelve and hiding behind a cushion, scared that Dracula himself might fly through the window and appear in our very own living room.  Or perhaps, for some people reading this, an old cinema that specialised in showing dodgy prints of old classics and drive-in features.  Either way, most of us won’t remember our first encounter with these films as being fully restored, sparkling prints – and it was while watching old, tattered copies that we fell in love with them and, possibly, why we fell in love with them.