A Tale of Two Chaneys List Post!
By Kristin Battestella
Tonight we’re discussing that lovably scary Father and Son duo Lon and Lon Chaney, Jr.!
The Hunchback of Notre Dame – Editions and runtimes for this 1923 silent classic based upon the Victor Hugo ode vary, of course. Jumping film and damaged footage, however, do not interfere with the surprisingly delightful cathedral production values, and the score matches the sweeping or tender as needed. Though long, complex, potentially confusing, and not for everyone, the tale here is well paced. Time is taken to establish the cultural backdrop, scope of events, and all characters – be they rich, poor, religious, decadent, revered, or reviled. Reels tinted green, yellow, blue, and purple for bittersweet flashbacks are also pleasing to see, as is the magnificent make up done by the eponymous Lon Chaney. The hump, shabby coat, gruesome face, and impressive, physically bent performance – Lon Senior’s switch from tender at hearing the church bells to spitting, rageful violence, and hanging from gargoyles is both repulsive and pitiful yet so fascinating to watch. Quasimodo is a wronged creature who does villainous and redemptive acts at the same time, and Chaney is wonderfully emotive yet subtle compared to the often seen over the top silent style. Unrecognizable Lon lets our own heart and helplessness fill in the inhumane, and the tale’s saucy suggestions and lusty turns make for some suspense and one or two proto-horror styled scenes amid the injustice. We’re talking about a film from almost a hundred years ago – a historical costume epic and shocking blockbuster with a wild finish – but the ugly examination on those that use, mock, torment, and abuse Quasimodo are what makes this story so long lasting. Today’s viewers will quickly notice some obvious social statements, redemption, Christ-like imagery, and saintly roles, but the combined symbolism and core depth here is still darn good stuff.
Lon Chaney: Behind the Mask – Rare, unseen silent film footage, vintage photos and clips, charming family home movies, and archive interviews with co-stars and crew anchor this 76 minute 1995 documentary illuminating the Man of a Thousand Faces. From early bit parts to his iconic horror heights, the pain, emotion, and melodramatic catharsis of his tragic portrayals is examined against Chaney’s stanch need for privacy amid the fame orchestrated Hollywood system. Collaborations with director Tod Browning are highlighted, and quotes on the craft from the man himself are smartly reiterated – wisdoms on how to utilize makeup or character flaws to accentuate the performance and create redemption in villainous roles. Of course, the presentation focuses on The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera but ends somewhat suddenly with Chaney’s death rather than any retrospective summation or legacy. Fortunately, there are lots of behind the scenes snippets, photographs, and factoids, for it’s really quite sad to realize how much of Chaney’s work is gone – over 30% of his films have vanished. 56 lost pictures – that’s more movies than some people today make in their entire lifetimes! The dated nineties design, uneven editing, jumping back and forth timeline, and a very dry narration don’t quite hit home here. However, this informative presentation remains classroom ready and will delight new film enthusiasts, longtime Chaney fans, and horror historians.
By The Sun’s Rays – This ten-minute 1914 western is Chaney’s earliest remaining work and thus is included with the Lon Chaney: Behind the Mask documentary. Certainly, it looks poor now, with a jumping picture and obvious damaged, but let’s give the magic of having a hundred year old movie a pass, shall we? This one is surprisingly well done for the time thanks to interior and exterior filming and unique binocular camera effects, but Chaney is already showing his slick as a double dealing clerk in on the gang’s gold heists. He’s so adept at standing out in the background as he nevertheless subtly listens for the latest shipment news or a good time to pocket the paperwork – or swipe a kiss from the dames. Ironically, the ladies are dressed in their of the time, pre-war Edwardian best rather than the Victorian or Old West attire the plot requires. Didn’t their mothers have some appropriately then recently old-fashioned designs handy in their closets? Fortunately, the nice horsemanship, carriage chases, and suspense music make for a dandy, thrilling little finish.
Spider Baby – Talk about an awkward dinner table! Lon Chaney Jr. sings the catchy little song matching the opening cartoon titles of this bizarre 1964 family cannibalism tale written and directed by Jack Hill (Coffy, Foxy Brown). Though the introduction seems slow to start – we only have 80 minutes and it takes too long for all the players to arrive on the scene – the ominous drive to the decrepit Victorian house, crazy knife killings, and cut off ears establish the twistedness. Quirky beatnik music, mellow pace, and low quality black and white photography belie the increasing suspense as those incoming ruthless cousins explore the house at their own peril. Our older, aged Creighton with the sweet Hearst seems like a reasonable, loyal caregiver yet he’s harboring a trio of seriously demented killers. The titular Jill Banner (The President’s Analyst) and her sister Beverly Washburn (Old Yeller) would seem to live quietly in peace – so long as no kids hop their fence or mailmen knock on their door that is. Internal references to classic horror film clichés and The Wolf Man add to this witty whiff of comedy, but veiled statements about trying not to be bad, being unable to help one’s behavior, or possibly not knowing any better perfectly contrast the humor and the ironic, supposedly normal but snotty and infiltrating rival family branch. Society vilifies the sick or ill it can’t understand, and the contorted and creepy to see yet innocent and tragic Sid Haig (House of 1,000 Corpses) initially has our sympathies. Of course, when the disturbia turns kinky, we know why these people remain under lock and key. Along with the scandalous inbreeding, cannibalism, family murder, black garter belts, and intriguing commentaries, the not for the feline faint of heart scene, eerie dumbwaiter uses, crawling spiders, and the general dementedness of seeing older people act like evil kids sets the bar for future macabre domestic horror pictures.
For all of our Lon Sr. and Lon Jr. Reviews, feel free to browse this handy list!
By the Sun’s Rays
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Lon Chaney: Behind the Mask