“The Unknown” is a work of twisted genius. Fans of “Tales From The Crypt” will love this bizarre, baroque sickie that bleeds with jealousy, evil lies, and moments that still make one laugh with disbelief.
Tod Browning, better known for his weird and wonderful sound films “Dracula” (1931), “Freaks” (1932), and “The Devil-Doll” (1936), explored the dingy carnival world in this late silent film, and Warner Bros were quite right in separating this evil child from the more sober character pieces that grace Disc 1 in the Lon Chaney Collection.
Co-starring Joan Crawford, the chess game that results, as affections, appendages, and lives are chopped down, still make one's jaw drop; not because of any physical horror, but the nasty, lingering moments of emotional sadism – deliberate, and unintentional – that heighten the tension, and build to an outrageous finale. Browning was a craftsman of intimate conflicts, but “The Unknown” is akin to watching a daddy long-leg spider lose its limbs at the hands of a skilled student, with an obsession for cruelty under a crisp microscope.
Michael F. Blake's commentary is less dense here, but still quite steady with production facts, and a good measure of his own head-shaking at the film's crazy moments. Crawford's frequently reduced to briefs, and Browning's camera obediently embraces her athletic physique (which loser Chaney is determined to conquer with the aid of his dwarf companion). Blake also describes a lost sequence, which explains the film's brief running time. The witty score performed by the Alloy Orchestra adds a mordant touch in the Dolby 2.0 mix, giving the film a rather contemporary feel.
Another Browning-Chaney collaboration in the set has been reconstructed using stills, since the only known surviving print of “London After Midnight” was lost in a fire, decades ago. Arguably the most sought-after “lost” film, Rick Schmidlin's attempt to evoke the original film is a mixed endeavor. While Chaney's iconic vampire make-up is still horrific, the limited images simply can't recreate the style and wit in Browning's direction, and as “The Unknown” displays in its own limited form, one truly needs the physical performances of the actors. Robert Israel's score adds an appropriate haunted-house mood, but it's very difficult to imagine how the vampire-spoof was received by audiences, although the included documentary does try.
Directed by Kevin Brownlow, narrated by Kenneth Branagh, with a rich orchestral score by Nic Raine, the lost and surviving works of Lon Chaney are covered in a fairly straightforward biographical narrative, “Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces.”
Using interviews with surviving colleagues (and the off-screen voice of a reluctant, but respectful, Loretta Young), one is left with genuine admiration for Hollywood's first “star” character actor. From his childhood, vaudeville training, film roles, and pioneering make-up effects, mythic characters and feats are addressed and dissected by the participants, including our unofficial guide, Michael Blake, with attention to Chaney's authorial contributions to casting, screenplays and direction. Perhaps the most poignant material is given from the brief archival footage of son Creighton, better known as Lon Chaney, Jr., whose own career was affected by the massive shadow of his father's legacy. Filmed late in his life, Chaney's son recalls life on the road, and the starving years after Chaney's first marriage disintegrated.
Many clips are shown – and several of the films are available on DVD – but watch the doc carefully, with firm finger close to the shuttle button, as you don't want any climactic moments – like the Technicolor shocks from “The Phantom of the Opera” - spoiled before you've relished the films in a proper sitting.
A great intro to Lon Chaney, and hopefully the beginning of more classics from the TCM silent film library.
“The Unknown ” is part of Warner Bros' Lon Chaney Collection. The 2-disc set also includes the features “Laugh Clown Laugh” and “Ace of Hearts ,” with extra bonus features to boot.
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan