Friday, November 20, 2015

I'm Original, Apparently! (My First Blog Award.)

I'm humbled, surprised, and honored to have been given one of the jury selection awards in the Criterion Blogathon. My recent post on David Lynch's Eraserhead and silent film
was selected as "most original" among the posts for the day.  It's always nice to have positive feedback, and I can use the boost to help fuel my work on my book.

It's even more of an honor considering the company I'm in. Have a look at some of the other entries on the Criterion Blogathon roster— some of the most amazing critical work I've read in a long time. I found lots of new blogs to subscribe to, and you probably will too.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) and Silent Film

Like a lot of people, my first introduction to Eraserhead was at a midnight movie on a college campus. It resonated with me in a way that it didn’t with my companions, who dismissed it as nonsense. The film is still divisive, and for every person who praises it as a masterpiece, you’re likely to find one or two who didn’t make it through the first five minutes. It’s understandable, really, considering that films like Eraserhead and its surrealist counterparts are practically a whole different medium than traditional films. Like opera, or poetry, or improvisational jazz, it requires an understanding and acceptance of the genre to crack its code. It’s not a matter of elitism. It’s simply a matter of some people just don’t like this kind of stuff.

It occurs to me that the manner in which some people don’t “get” Eraserhead is similar to the way that some people don’t get silent film. I’m willing to bet that there may be a few silent film fans out there that appreciated Eraserhead when it came out because they were already used to weird films with little dialogue. For me, it was the opposite. When I first started to seriously watch silent films, part of why they appealed to me right away was because I came to love the world of Eraserhead so long ago.

In a lot of ways, Lynch’s first feature film is a silent film. It’s almost a full 11 minutes before anyone speaks at all (“Are you Henry?” asks the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall). There’s only brief, intermittent dialogue thereafter, amounting to only a few minute’s worth. Jack Nance (the film’s lead, and a Lynch regular until his death in 1996) remarked in an interview that it was “a little script.” He continued: “It was only a few pages with this weird imagery and not much dialogue and this baby kind of thing." He wasn’t being hyperbolic. The entire transcript of the dialogue takes up surprisingly little space (have a look). It’s easy to imagine the dialogue being presented silent film-style, on intertitle cards, without it changing very much about the film at all. You could even remove the spoken words entirely and still have something quite special (I’d argue the same with the title cards for F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise).

Harold Lloyd.

Those who mention the fact that Eraserhead is like a silent film are usually quick to point out that, of course, it does have sound. It’s an easy way to launch into a paragraph about the film’s soundtrack, which is as important as its visual imagery. Lynch went to unusual lengths to record just the right sounds for his film (filling bottles with microphones and putting them in a bathtub, for starters), and the results show. The atmosphere is pervaded by constant, unsettling sounds that seem alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) industrial and corporeal. The hissing sounds might be the steam releasing from a machine, but sometimes you’d swear you also detect the gurgling of saliva. It’s a disturbing effect, and a distinctly Lynchian one, that keeps the lines blurred between what is alive and what is mechanical. (Metropolis, anyone?) Keep in mind, though, that silent films were never presented soundlessly, and if you’ve ever tried to watch one without music, you know that they lose their atmosphere just as much as Eraserhead does with its sound turned down.

Eraserhead’s similarities to silent films go beyond the fact that it has little dialogue or even that it’s filmed in black and white. Its whole world is within the silent film milieu. The bleak factory setting is straight out of the Depression, with trappings far older than the year the film was made: a wall telephone with a flared mouthpiece, an old phonograph (used to play Fats Waller records from the 1920s), a curtained stage straight out of vaudeville. Henry’s filthy, sparse room looks like something from Chaplin’s The Kid, while the factory elements are as unsettling as those of Modern TImes. From the very beginning, Eraserhead looks both bizarre and familiar. Lynch would come to reuse many of the elements from the set, so the lobby will evoke both Twin Peaks’ Black Lodge and Mulholland Drive’s Club Silencio for those who have seen his later films. But, that’s not the only reason it’s so recognizable. It’s a world we know, because it’s an old one. It’s been captured on film for more than a hundred years.

Jack Nance’s Henry is a throwback as well, with a fright hairdo that resembles Harold Lloyd’s at the end of Haunted Spooks and an ill-fitting suit that’s the trademark of every silent clown. Like most of the popular silent comedians, Henry is a hapless innocent in bizarre circumstances, and he faces most of them with the stone-faced stoicism of a Buster Keaton. When his facial expression isn’t blank, it’s puzzled. Henry is part of a big, crazy world that he doesn’t understand, and he doesn’t do things so much as things happen to him. One of the first things we see Henry do is one of the oldest comedy tropes in the book, but it establishes his character in an instant: he steps in a mud puddle. We’re on very familiar turf, and we know something that is equally true for both silent comedy and surrealism. Anything can happen (and it probably will). As soon as Henry enters the warehouse, things turn dark, strange, industrial. The silent clown enters Metropolis.

Chaplin and Nance as caretakers.

Reduced to its basic plot elements, Eraserhead is a sequence of familiar ideas. While the more bizarre elements and visual effects make it difficult for some viewers to distill, there’s nothing here, story-wise that would be out of place in a classic film. Henry is a factory worker whose girlfriend’s parents convince to marry their daughter after she has a child (if that is indeed what it is). Mary has a hard time with motherhood and leaves Henry to largely care for the child on his own. Henry is seduced by a beautiful woman (the classic vamp of the silent film world) and things begin to fall apart. It’s the absurd details that make the film what it is, but those details are also part of what makes the film an echo of the films that precede it.

Take, for example, the film’s opening: a double exposure trick juxtaposes Jack Nance’s giant, sideways head with what appears to be a planet, or a moon. As we get closer, the planet/moon looks like it’s not made of rock, but something organic. It’s a rotten orange, or decaying meat. It’s possibly even alive. It’s not only a photographic trick that’s more than 100 years old, but it’s a visual that looks strikingly like something Georges Méliès would have done, or even more precisely, Segundo de Chomón.

Some of Lynch’s most grotesque elements in Eraserhead would be right at home in a de Chomón short, and both directors have a fascination with disembodied heads and decay. In one of Eraserhead’s scenes, Henry pulls sperm-like ropes from Mary’s body and flings them against the wall. One of them cavorts around in a stop-motion segment that de Chomón would have found quite familiar. A pioneer of stop-motion, he often used it to shock or disgust, as he did in Panicky Picnic (1909), wherein a cake is cut open to reveal an interior filled with worms. Lynch’s animated, blood-filled chicken in the family dinner scene is no more absurd than de Chomón’s sequences featuring self-slicing sausages or cracked eggs with live rats inside.

Above: de Chomon. Below: Lynch.

The tiny theater inside Henry’s radiator is not far removed from the miniature performances that take place in de Chomón’s Metamorphoses, but Henry is not controlling the show. He is merely a voyeur. When Henry steps into the radiator, it’s a shocking moment. We’ve come to accept the woman in the radiator as part of a different world—why, it’s not even his size! Like Keaton stepping into the movie screen in Sherlock, Jr., it’s a breathtaking moment that shatters the reality we’ve come to accept, and in this case, it was a bizarre reality to begin with. Henry has broken a fourth wall that exists inside a larger four walls. While things get pretty crazy on that stage, with Henry’s head falling off and the creepy baby wearing his suit, my favorite moment is one that’s easy to miss.

As the giant tree (or miniature tree, as we’re inside the radiator) is wheeled onto the stage, something unusual happens. Henry looks afraid, and at first it seems as if the big tree, an exact copy of the one on his bedside table that sits potless in a pile of dirt, is what has him in a panic. But, he looks out to the audience. As he backs away, he continues to steal nervous glances at the theatre’s audience, at us. He is acutely aware of being watched, of going from voyeur to the object of the voyeurism. The camera pans out to remind us that this is all taking place on a stage, perhaps to emphasize that it’s not taking place in the “real” outside world. It reminds me of the convention in some very early silents wherein the film would begin and end with a curtain’s rise and fall, especially in the case of thrillers, as a way of making the audience feel more at ease. (“It’s not real, folks!”)

If there’s a single silent film that Eraserhead resembles, though, it’s Un Chien Andalou, the surrealist Luis Bunuel/Salvador Dali collaboration from 1929. It’s often been remarked upon, but easily dismissed because Lynch claims to not have seen it prior to making his film. Even if the similarities are unintentional, they’re relevant, as the list of oddities the films have in common is long enough that it could be a separate post, so I’ll just name a few. Both films deal with voyeurism, first depicted in each film when a violent act is seen through the window. Both contain scenes of mundane domesticity  punctuated by gruesomeness. Un Chien Andalou’s most famous scene, still cited more than seventy years later as one of the most disturbing ever filmed, features a woman’s eyeball being sliced with a razor. Shock factor aside, what’s oddest about it is the fact that it seems to take place in an ordinary home, as if it’s an ordinary event, much like the disturbing aspects of the family dinner in Eraserhead. 

Un Chien Andalou's most famous sequence.

Both films contain dismembered body parts as well as live creatures emerging from human body parts. (It’s hard to believe that the ants crawling from the hole in a hand in Un Chien Andalou didn’t inform the infested ear in Blue Velvet, so even if Lynch hadn’t seen the short film in 1977, he probably saw it before 1986). In some ways, Eraserhead is Un Chien Andalou in reverse, as the Bunuel film opens with the slicing of an organ, while Lynch’s film saves it for last. Both films contain a ray of hope at the end, or at least of finality. Eraserhead’s baby is destroyed, and Henry steps into the world of the radiator, embracing the woman who has continually sung to him that “In heaven, everything is fine.” In Un Chien Adalou, it’s the mysterious box that’s destroyed, and the protagonists frolic on the beach. The final title card of the latter film informs us that it is spring, and we see the couple unmoving, buried in the sand up to their necks. Are they dead? Is this a happy ending or not? You could ask the same questions at the end of Eraserhead.

Bunuel and Dali insisted that their film had no meaning at all, and that creating a meaningless film was their whole purpose. “No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted” said Bunuel of the filming process. Lynch’s film is presumed to have some meaning, but the director has said repeatedly that no one has ever interpreted it correctly, and he’s keeping mum about what it (or any other film) really means. Is there a big difference between a film having no meaning and one whose meaning is kept in the dark? Even with Bunuel and Dali’s attempt at making a meaningless film, it’s impossible to watch it and not begin to form a plot in your head. As humans, we see patterns and make connections between things. It’s what we do.

And perhaps it’s what I’m doing when I spot silent film influences in Eraserhead. Maybe they are there, and maybe they are not. It’s funny to me, though, that even people who claim Eraserhead “makes no sense” also describe it as disturbing, or as a nightmare. That means they’re making sense of it in some way. Something recognizable is coming through to them as fear. And that’s because Eraserhead, like the best silent comedies (or the best surrealist works), speaks to universal truths. It’s about universal human struggles. The awkward family dinner, the fear of parenthood—it’s all really very simple. Those moments that are never explained (why are there peas in the dresser drawer?) are absurd, but so are our lives, and there are just as many questions in our own that we will never answer.

This post was written for the Criterion Blogathon. You can find the full roster of entries, each featuring a different Criterion film, at Criterion Blues.

Update: I’m pleased that my post was chosen for one of the daily jury selection awards in the Criterion Blogathon (most original post). 

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Phantom of the Moulin Rouge (1925)

More of a comedy-fantasy than a horror flick, despite the tempting title. This film has a little too much Moulin Rouge and not enough phantoms about it for a true horror fans taste, but it's still a fun diversion from Rene Claire, who went on to make the talkies I Married a Witch and It Happened Tomorrow. Full review to follow.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Fall of the House of Usher / La Chute de la Maison Usher (1928)

Not to be confused with the Watson and Webber short of the same year, this Poe adaptation is directed by Jean Epstein with a script co-written by surrealist Luis Bunuel (of Un Chien Andalou fame). Full review to follow.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Hands of Orlac (1924)

A re-watch of one of my favorite films with one of my favorite silent film actors: The Hands of Orlac with Conrad Veidt. A concert pianist has his hands crushed in a train accident, but has new ones grafted on. The hands, which belonged to a murdered, take on a life of their own, and begin to do terrible things that are beyond Orlac's control. Full review to follow.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

While The Hunchback of Notre Dame isn't truly a horror story, Quasimodo is often thought of as a monster, for better or worse. The grotesque appearance of the hunchback has forever linked the story with horror history, and a performance by the great Lon Chaney sealed the deal. Full review to follow.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Au Secours! (1924)

Well, this was a treat. A Max Linder comedy-horror short about a man who takes a bet that he can't spend the night in a haunted house. Typical stuff, right? Well, it is, sort of,  until it takes a quite bizarre turn. Full review to follow.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Der Golem: How He Came Into the World (1920)

Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam is often mistaken for the first Golem film, despite the fact that it came third in Paul Wegener's trilogy. That's due in part to the fact that it tells the story of the Golem's origin (probably the first horror movie prequel), and also the fact that the first two Golem films are long lost. Full review to follow.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Warning Shadows (1923)

This psychological horror story directed by Arthur Robison is a masterpiece of German silent cinema. A mysterious shadow puppeteer gives a group of dinner guests more than they bargained for, and we get some of the greatest visuals ever created from cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner (who worked on M and Nosferatu). Full review to follow.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Friday, October 23, 2015

Menilmontant (1926)

Menilmontant may be more often billed as a thriller, but the double axe murder that opens the film is as intense as the shower stabbing in Psycho—and uses the same camera techniques decades ahead of Hitchcock. Full review on the way.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Destiny (1921)

Six years prior to Metropolis, Fritz Lang directed another story penned by Thea von Harbou: Destiny or Der Müde Tod is about a woman who makes a deal with Death in order to reunite with her lover. Full review to follow.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Buster Keaton in The Haunted House (1921)

Keaton's chair is unwilling to let him go in The Haunted House.   
Okay, maybe it's not horror, and maybe it's not even comedy-horror, but it is Buster Keaton in a short film with plenty of haunted house elements. Full review to follow.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Fall of the House of Usher (1928 Short Film)

There were two film versions of The Fall of the House of Usher in 1928, one of them being a short artistic film by James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber, with a script written in part by poet E. E. Cummings. Full review to follow.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Cat and the Canary (1927)

Still watching a silent horror film a night, and will fill in the reviews as soon as I can. (Sitting with a friend who is recovering from a stroke.)

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Edison’s Frankenstein (1910)

Edison didn't have anything to do personally with Frankenstein's first film adaptation, which was thought lost for years, but his name seems to still be inextricably linked to it.

Full review to follow soon, and I  think you're going to really like this one.

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Bat (1926)

The movie that inspired the movie that inspired Bob Kane to create Batman. Full review to follow.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Genuine (1920)

Robert Wiene's  follow-up to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was not well-received in its time, but gosh, is it visually stunning. Full review to follow.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Penalty (1920)

Wow! Another great Lon Chaney flick, this time as an amputee crime lord in The Penalty. Full review to follow.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Danse Macabre (1922)

A mix of animation and live-action scenes tell the story of love during a time of Plague, when death is ever-present. Full review to follow.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Short, Spooky Films of Segundo de Chomón, “The Spanish Méliès”

Today’s silent horror film for 31 Days of Silent Horror Films is actually more than one film. To coincide with today’s Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon, I’m focusing on the short films of Spanish film pioneer Segundo de Chomón, who also happens to be a pioneer of silent horror.

I always find it odd that horror films as a genre are seen as a niche interest, or at least considered to be outside of the mainstream. It’s a little puzzling considering that many of the very first films ever made featured supernatural themes and horror characters. Georges Méliès’  Le Manoir du Diable (The Devil’s Castle) from 1896 depicts a skeleton that turns into a bat, then into the Devil, who conjures up a host of spooky spectres. It’s one of the earliest films in existence, and it’s decidedly horror. Even Edison took a stab at horror with his famous 1910 version of Frankenstein.

Spanish silent film pioneer Segundo de Chomon.

But, while pioneers like Méliès and Edison are known outside of silent film geekdom, not many people are familiar with the name Segundo de Chomón. De Chomón, who not only was a master of early film techniques, but also an innovator of horror special effects, is often referred to as “the Spanish Méliès,” but in many ways surpassed the achievements of the more famous filmmaker. Whether or not you agree with his superiority to Méliès, de Chomón is inarguably the most important Spanish director of silent films.

Aragon-born de Chomón was lured into the film world by his wife, French actress Julienne Mathieu. One of the earliest French film actresses, Mathieu appeared in a slew of early early Pathé Frères productions. De Chomón became an agent for Pathé Frères films in Spain, and by 1901 was producing his own actuality films of Spanish locales. He soon learned to hand-tint films and ultimately helped develop the Pathéchrome process. Inspired by Méliès, he began working on trick films, and Pathé was happy to support his efforts, hoping to compete with the French filmmaker’s popular projects. 

Claymation head from de Chomon's Haunted House.

De Chomón quickly moved past mere mimicry of Méliès work with stop-motion and double exposure effects and developed his own camera tricks. His films display his innovations in hand-drawn animation and silhouette animation, the latter of which he was among the first to use. De Chomón developed his own methods of single-frame techniques, optical dissolves, and traveling shots, taking it all farther than Méliès ever did. In fact, when Méliès company was beginning to fail, de Chomón was gaining even more steam. He accepted an invitation to work on films in Italy and directed the special effects on notable full-length films like Cabiria  and Maciste in Hell  (Film #10 in the 31 Days of Silent Horror Films event). Filmed using a tracking camera of de Chomón’s own invention, Cabiria is said to feature the first ever “dolly” shot in film.

Special effects aside, one of the other ways de Chomón pushed the envelope further than Méliès is with his stories, and that’s where his importance as a horror filmmaker comes in. De Chomón played more with fantastic narratives and surreal elements, weaving them into a story, rather than just presenting them for the sake of a special effect. Sometimes those elements are downright gruesome, such as the worms that appear inside a cake in Panicky Picnic. Even by today’s standards, his horror elements are often eery and unsettling (the face that appears in the mirror in La Maison Ensorcelée is still nightmare-inducing today). 

Animated silhouettes of demons interspersed with live action shots.

La Maison Ensorcelée (1908) or The Haunted House is a prime example of what made de Chomón so special in his time. It’s loaded with special effects, and some of them are effects that continued to be used in horror film for decades to come. Enchanted clothing would still seem like a pretty neat trick when Bedknobs and Broomsticks came out 63 years later. Also notable are the multiple kinds of animation techniques used in the short (plus the fact that it’s blended in with live actors): hand-drawn animation, silhouette animation, miniatures, and claymation all make an appearance in the film. While stop-motion animation was around before  de Chomón came along, the enchanted breakfast in La Maison Ensorcelée is still one of the best examples of it in early film, with self-slicing sausages and tea that pours itself. Lest it all seem more quaint than horrifying, that spooky character from the mirror shows up again for a frightening finale.

One of the other de Chomón films of particular interest to silent horror film fans is Satan S’amuse (1907) or Satan at Play. On the surface, it’s a magic act, similar to the many shorts of Méliès or other magicians-turned-filmmakers like Walter Booth. De Chomón has added some horror touches that go beyond the skeleton costume of the titular demon. Particularly grim is a levitation act performed with two (for the time) attractive women. Each woman is wrapped in a swath of dark paper, rather like a giant cigar, before she is levitated, then set aflame. We see the bundles begin to disintegrate before our eyes just as they vanish, taking the presumably charred bodies of the women with them. By the end of the macabre magic show, the Devil sets the entire set on fire. (While not a horror element, I was particularly pleased to see the Pathé rooster appear briefly on one of the illusions. The rooster served as a way of copyrighting the films, and it’s always fun to spot it when it turns up. This is one of the most clever uses of it I’ve seen.)

As a bonus, I’d like to mention La Grenouille or The Frog (1908). It’s a fun bit of surrealism that proves just how influential De Chomón still is today. Those who follow pop music will recognize that Lady Gaga borrowed several elements from the film for her video to the song “Applause,” right down to the tinted smoke and the clamshells (and of course the obvious spinning head).


It’s hard to know for sure why de Chomón’s name is not as well-known as that of Méliès, but some speculate that it’s because he was from Spain but did so much work in France, thus no country ever really claimed him as their own. There’s also the fact that he was largely forgotten after his death, while several people worked to champion Méliès after his death and preserve his work. And, of course, modern audiences know Méliès thanks to the movie Hugo. Regardless of why he was forgotten, Segundo de Chomón needs to be rediscovered and remembered for his contributions to horror films and to all films with special effects. He was indisputably a master. 


This post is a crossover post for both Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon ...

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Lon Chaney in The Monster (1925)

In between The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, Lon Chaney made this less-talked about film. The Monster may not be his most famous movie, but it's the source of some film tropes that are still around today.

Film #11 for 31 Days of Silent Horror Films.

Full review to follow.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Maciste in Hell (1926)

Film #10 for 31 Days of Silent Horror Films is Maciste in Hell, featuring one of the longest-running characters in cinema. The beefy Maciste gives what-for to the hordes of demons and she-devils he encounters. Full review on the way!

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Lodger (1927): Hitchcock's Take on Belloc Lowndes' Take on Jack the Ripper

Film #9 for 31 Days of Silent Horror Film: Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger. I'll be playing catch-up with the reviews in the next few days.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Hangman's House (1928)

This film may not be a horror film, as I found after I started watching it, and it may have been erroneously included on a list of silent horror films based on title alone. But, here's the thing: the silent Gothic melodrama has a dark sensibility, and some really strange touches that make me feel like I shouldn't swap it out for another more horrific pick. And get this: it's a John Ford film!

Film #8 in 31 Days of Silent Horror Films

Full review to follow soon.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1920): John Barrymore Explores Man's Dual Nature

Film #7 in 31 Days of Silent Horror Films is perhaps the most famous of the Jekyll and Hyde adaptations—though far from the first.

Full review to come, so watch this space.

(I'm dealing with a personal emergency which has slowed down the full posts, but I'm still watching a film a day and should play catch-up soon. Thanks for your patience.)

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Un Chien Adalou (1929): The Surrealist Influence on the Horror Film

Film #6 in 31 Days of Silent Horror Film's is Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali's surrealistic masterpiece Un Chien Andalou. Check back for a full review to come.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Waxworks (1924): Paul Leni's Anthology Film Brings Weird Tales to Life

Film #5 in Film Dirt's 31 Days of Silent Horror Films is Paul Leni's Waxworks. That's Conrad Veidt on the right as Ivan the Terrible. Watch this space for the full review.

Full review  HERE.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Unknown (1927): Lon Chaney, Tod Browning, and One Beautifully Bizarre Plot

Lon Chaney as an armless knife thrower in Tod Browning's The Unknown. Some of the stunts were performed by real-life armless foot double Paul Desmuke, who went on to perform for years billing himself as "Lon Chaney's Feet."

I was intrigued by The Unknown long before I ever saw it, all because of an anecdote related to how the film went missing for decades. Researching and writing a book about lost films means I’ve heard about a lot of different ways that films are lost—fire, earthquakes, destruction by Nazis, being left on the subway, or being dumped into a mining pool, to name a few—but this one is in a class of its own. The Cinémathèque Française ultimately found a 35mm print of The Unknown in their very own archives, where it had become lost among all of the hundreds of reels of unidentified film similarly marked “Unknown.” (Well, technically marked L’inconnu.) This is the only instance I know of in which a film’s title caused it to be lost.

Man, am I glad they found it. I’m about to fall victim of the problem I have where the more I like a film, the less capable I am of talking about it. I just want to grab people by the shoulders and shake them as I drool and say, “Watch this! Watch this weird and wonderful thing, right now!” Let me just begin by saying that this is a Tod Browning/Lon Chaney collaboration in which Chaney plays an armless carnival knife-thrower. That should be enough right there, and as much as I’d love for you to read the rest of my post, if that is enough to intrigue you, then go … go and watch it now, because I’m going to lay down some spoilers. (Come back and read the rest later!)

And if that’s not enough for you? Well, this film is going to get a lot weirder. And then it’s going to get weird some more. And I’m not talking about weird for 1927—this is weird for the ages.

Lon Chaney is a circus performer known as Alonzo the Armless, and the film’s first scene shows us Alonzo in action, throwing knives, with his feet, at Joan Crawford. Now, silent film fans know better, but there are a lot of people in the world who only know Crawford from her later work—in other words, as the scary hag of Mommie Dearest fame—but in the 1920s, she was an ingenue. Here, she is eighteen years-old and luminous as Nanon, the circus manager’s daughter. Alonzo’s talented toes alternately hurl knives and shoot bullets around the outline of her perfect figure, and as each weapon penetrates the board, she loses a piece of her clothing, revealing a skimpy costume underneath.  As if this psycho-sexual act doesn’t have enough psycho in it, the whole thing takes place on a huge, rotating platform, Alonzo flinging and grinning and shooting, and Nanon getting nakeder and nakeder as she spins by. 

Alonzo the Armless prepares to entertain.

After the show, we learn that Alonzo is desperately in love with Nanon, who feels safe around the only man she knows who doesn’t try to grope her. In fact, she has a near-pathological aversion to masculine meathooks: “Men, the beasts! God should take all their hands.” Also in love with Nanon is Malabar (Norman Kerry), the circus strong man with a wispy mustache, who seems a bit of a scuzz. He skulks around her caravan after the show and seems intent on doing some of the groping she so despises, and tells her he loves her, and that he’ll tell her so every day (in other words, expect him to drop by for some harassment on the regular). Alonzo enjoys watching Malabar rebuffed, and even gives him the advice to take Nanon in his arms, knowing that she’ll recoil from him even more.Malabar is the anti-Alonzo, all strong and handsy. Good, safe, armless Alonzo is clearly the one who will win her hand-hating heart.

Malabar the Strong Man can't figure out that Nanon doesn't like to be touched.
I'm rooting for these two, whether it makes sense or not.

Alonzo heads back to his caravan, where his dwarf assistant Cojo (John George) then unstraps him from a torturous-looking corset contraption, revealing … Alonzo’s arms. He’s a faker! Alonzo the Armless is really Alonzo With the Conventional Number of Arms. (As you’re taking in this plot twist, it’s impossible not to think about the fact that Lon Chaney is spending so much of the movie with his arms confined in this thing, which doesn’t look fun at all—a sign of his dedication as an actor. He also looks lean and muscular and pretty damn good, and I’m thinking that while he’s certainly an unconventional romantic lead, it’s working for me.) Alonzo mutters something about the police and what they’d give to know who he really is. Oh no, I think. The good guy is sinister. Am I still supposed to root for him? I love flawed lead characters, so I figure that it’s safe to still consider Alonzo the good guy. Surely the “what he’s done” has some good explanation or is something noble, like stealing from the rich.

Oh, and it is also revealed in this scene that he has two thumbs on one hand. 

Alonzo the Non-Armless, with sidekick Cojo. Note the double thumbs.

Soon after, Alonzo’s status as Good Guy goes from cloudy to non-existent when he murders the circus manager. I can’t help but recall something a theatre professor once told me as we were reading Corneille’s Le Cid: “If you want to win a girl’s heart, don’t murder her father.” Alas for Alonzo, a flash of lightning illuminates his double-thumb as Nanon witnesses the murder. While she then knows that someone with two thumbs is the killer, no one suspects Mr. The Armless. In fact, as the cops arrive to question and fingerprint the gypsies, Alonzo is nonchalantly strumming a guitar with his feet.

Alonzo convinces Nanon to stay behind with him as the circus moves on, and Cojo witnesses a bit of intimacy between the two. The dwarf is not amused, and warns him that he can never let her touch him that way again lest she notice he has arms. He also reminds him that she saw the weird thumbs of the man who murdered her father. In other words, there’s no sane way the two can ever really be together. Alonzo, who has unstrapped his arms, is now so flustered that he’s lighting up and puffing away at a cigarette held between his toes. “You are forgetting you have arms,” Cojo laughs, but there may be more to it than that. Alonzo has reasoned out that while there may be no sane way the two can be together, there may be an insane way. 

Chaney's intensity shows in every single frame.

A word here about Lon Chaney’s acting: it’s among the best I’ve ever seen. He manages to convey both anger and anguish in these scenes. Everything about this whole story is absurd, yet I’m buying it, because Chaney is convincing me that every bit of his emotions are real. And that’s why I continue to buy it, to believe it, even though the next turn of events is shocking.

Alonzo tells us of his plan, though the title cards don’t let us in on it. They only show us Cojo’s horrified response: “No! Never do that!” But Alonzo does do that, which turns out to be blackmailing a surgeon to actually remove his arms. It’s the most over-the-top solution to a problem that could probably be conceived, but here, it sort of has a twisted logic. The only thing that Alonzo doesn’t consider is his recovery time, and during that time, Malabar, who it turns out isn’t such a bad guy after all, has continued to spend every day telling Nanon he loves her. When Alonzo returns from his surgery, with nothing new to report, because no one knew he had arms to begin with, Nanon and Malabar have news of their own. They’re engaged! Not only has Nanon gotten over her fear of hands, but she loves Malabar’s big, strong hands.

In one fell swoop, Alonzo has lost the woman he loves to a man with arms, when he has just had his own removed in order to be with her. It’s like a perverted Gift of the Magi. Chaney’s response is one of the best moments in all of silent cinema. He smiles the biggest, fakest, most twisted smile you’ve ever seen, then breaks down into laughter. They laugh along at first, but the laughter becomes more and more maniacal until Chaney completely implodes. It’s the greatest visual meltdown I’ve ever seen.

No longer afraid of his arms.

While I’ve revealed most of the plot, I’ll hold back a little of the ending which is deliciously twisted, and involves a circus act and horses on treadmills.

It’s hard to know what to make of all of this, but I do know The Unknown is one of the most amazing silent films I’ve ever seen. As ridiculous as the set-up is, there’s something very modern and universal about it. The themes of obsession, sacrifice, loss: they’re things we all know, and Chaney’s performance makes us feel every bit of it along with him. Joan Crawford’s Nanon may at first seem silly with her fear of being touched, but it’s similar behavior to anyone who has suffered abuse.

Chaney and Browning would ultimately collaborate on ten films, and while it’s often remarked upon that each of their greatest works were outside of that collaboration, this is undoubtedly the best film they made together. The Unknown most certainly deserves to be known. 

The Unknown is available on DVD via Amazon, and streams in various spots around the internet (it’s in the public domain, though soundtrack quality varies). 

One of 31 silent horror films I'm watching this month. See the link below for the complete list (some with full reviews).