Monday, 19 September 2016

London After Midnight (1927, Tod Browning)

"A cloudswept sky... trees moaned... owls hooted... a muffled shot... a groan... a scream pierced the midnight... Roger Balfour was found dead in his London home."

As a child, i thought, spake and got ill as a child.  One particular summer a long, low time ago i was laid down low with a particularly nasty case of the mumps - not that i suspect that there are any nice kinds, but my nine year old self prone on the couch barely able to speak (possibly to the relief of my beleaguered family) with glands all a-swollen wasn't having a very nice time.  To occupy me and keep me from feeling sorry for myself, my mother picked up a book she spotted in a second-hand bookshop's window that she knew i would like, and i spent the next few days on my sick bed (or sick settee) eagerly devouring the contents of this large hardback volume that would be a treasured possession to this day.  The book was Alan Frank's Horror Films, a chronological essaying of le cinema fantastique from the inception of the medium by the Lumiere Brothers to circa 1978.  I'd loved horror, science fiction and fantasy ever since i was a mite, and i delighted in being educated upon my favourite subject, learning all about these films and their plots and protagonists, and most of all being young i was entranced by the hundreds of images (stills, posters, lobby cards et al) from these movies.  One image that particularly caught my attention was Lon Chaney's vampiric visage leering from the page in a photograph from London After Midnight - all wide bulging eyes and bird's nest hair sprouting out from 'neath his hat and mocking taloned finger pointed accusingly toward me.

But, most of all, the teeth.

Not the wolfish canines i had seen displayed by Christopher Lee and Barbara Shelley in the colourful Gothic Hammer romps i'd been allowed to stay up and watch; these were the teeth of a shark - Chaney's grinning maw brimming with fangs, each and every gnasher a razor pointed weapon.  I was terrified.  I was intrigued.  I needed to see this, one day.

As i grew older i found myself seeing a great many of the films covered in that book, mentally ticking off each one, until now some 27 or 28 years later i'm sure i've seen the vast majority of them. But some seemed to perpetually remain elusive, including 'the one with the freaky looking vampire'.  I was quite saddened around ten years ago when i learned that London After Midnight was a Lost Film (in fact, the very notion of 'Lost Films' is one that saddles me with a heavy heart, as the realisation that not all art, including cinema, is preserved for the ages and can be ephemeral bites at my cineaste soul).  Growing up as a Doctor Who fan, the notion that we cannot simply access all of these delights that we've grown up reading and hearing about - a fair portion of 1960s monochrome Who having been 'junked' by the BBC in the 1970s - is a familiar but awful one, and learning that London After Midnight had survived as an extant print all the way to 1967 before being consumed in an MGM vault fire seemed to be putting me through the trials of Tantalus: it had reached out across fifty years of the void of time since its release, but then been cruelly snatched away.

But then i discovered that, much like the lost Doctor Who stories i was so familiar with, a reconstruction of the film had been made using photographic elements.  Much like, say, "Fury from the Deep", this was the only way i was ever going to 'see' the film - as close as i could ever get to experiencing it.  Good enough, i thought, it's better than nothing.  And so i finally sat down, almost three decades after first becoming aware of it, to see what i would make of London After Midnight.

After the mysterious murder that opens the movie, we are swiftly introduced to the intrepid Professor Edward Burke (Lon Chaney), private investigator liaising with Scotland Yard.  Burke, P. I. (which almost demands it's own Bellasario-style spinoff show) shows up at the scene of the crime surprisingly quickly - a mere 'fifteen minutes' after Balfour's death - to question the household and neighbours.  The rather pertinent question from Arthur Hibbs (Conrad Nagel) as to how the Professor-Inspector arrived so fast is deflected with an imperious "That's my business, young man!"

Five Years Later....

As with the later Universal horror movie cycle, what would a monster movie be without peasants? This time, they're merely passing a property in a cart rather than brandishing burning torches.

"'Oly 'Enry! The 'ouse is 'aunted!" exclaims the woman in the carriage, perhaps displaying the first ever cultural recognition of the Cockney peasant on film.  Chaney's befanged vampire has decided to rent this particular property after his spooky moonlight overlook of the premises.  For some reason unfathomable by the mind of man, the only thing the legal functionary can think to ask this shark-toothed boggle-eyed spectre of the macabre is "You understand that if you lease this house, the owner will not pay for the repairs?"

I think he's fine with that.

"Sir James, it's 'orrible!  The Balfour 'ouse is 'aunted!"  "Dead people from the grave!  Vampires is what they are!"  are some of the proclamations made.  At this point, Professor P. I. Burke returns, looking a bit older than a mere five year elapsing of time: Chaney's make up skills are evident here, white-haired and monocled was he.  The vampire in the beaver hat's signature on the lease for the Balfour house is signed 'Roger Balfour'.  Chills.  Scenes.  Lucille Balfour (portrayed by the absolutely lovely in a heart-stopping manner Marceline Day - i really must try to break this habit of falling in love with silent movie actresses one day) says that she has heard a voice calling to her from the garden.  "It sounded exactly like my father calling... Lucy!  Lucy!" - the parallels with Stoker's Dracula, which Browning would translate to the screen in a clunky and stagy rendition four years later, are obvious.

Then we have the discovery of an ancient tome of vampire lore - The Undead: The True History of Vampyrs Being a Compilation from Authentic Sources of Quaint and Curious Phenomena (Published London, 1721) - a la Murnau's earlier Nosferatu, prompting Burke's (probably quite valid) expectoration of "This is all ancient tommyrot!".

Hibbs says to Lucille "You turn to me first in danger - that proves love, Lucille" (or indeed instinct, you fool).  He then winds up in a steamy clinch with Smithson the Cockney peasant maid.  "Can't I sleep upstairs with you tonight, Mr Hibbs?" pleads the terrified menial.  I'm sure you can, dear - the man's an animal.  An ANIMAL.  "There isn't going to be any sleep about this house tonight..." he says. I'm quite sure, you dog, you.

Inspector Burke and Sir James explore the grounds of the Balfour house in a sequence highly reminiscent of the staging of Harker and Van Helsing's casing of Carfax in Dracula.  They see such sights as should never be seen - Sir Roger himself, sitting in a chair in a room with the vampire.  Burke then decides to protect Lucille's room from the undead, with a twist and lore-change in that two crossed swords of steel and a wreath of roses are utilised, instead of the more traditional crucifix, garlic and / or hawthorn.

Burke then decides to hypnotise Hibbs - forcing him to remember the night of Balfour's murder. While Hibbs remains in his Mesmerised state, Burke goes to Hibbs' bedroom and lies in the bed awaiting the coming of the footfalls of the murderer.  A hooded figure enters, and attempts to kill him...

Lucille goes missing from her room, lured to the Balfour house by the bat-girl vampiress Luna (Edna Tichenor - tres Gothy).  "Tell Luna, we are ready" instructs the late Sir Roger to an Irving Pichel-esque (in the sense of his role in Dracula's Daughter, rather than the more unpalatable rumours...) flunky, and Lucille is duly brought in.

"Remember, Lucille... you... are doing this... for your father".

Burke gives Sir James his gun, and takes him to the Balfour house, telling him to look whomever he may meet "straight in the eye - show no fear!".  The mysterious vampiric 'Man in the Beaver Hat' hypnotises Sir James, telling him to remember the night of Balfour's death.  Meanwhile, Luna has given Lucille the same white dress that she wore upon that fateful night, and as Sir James - thinking that it is five years ago - enters, Lucille is with "Sir Roger" re-enacting some disenchanted evening.

Burke: "Smithson, i'm all ready to prove that, when hypnotised, a criminal will re-enact his crime!"

The ersatz Sir Roger announces that he has signed his will, naming Sir James as the executor of his estate and Lucille's legal guardian.  Sir James announces his hopes that, Papa Lazaou-like, Lucille will one day be HIS WIFE.  "But... she's only a child, James!" exclaims Rog.  "I don't mean now," says reasonable paedophile Sir James, sounding for all the world like the basis for Brass Eye's 'Someday I Want To, But Not Today' song, "I mean in five or six years!"

Oh.  Well, that's alright, then.

At 1. 10 A.M. Sir James returns with two guns, telling Roger to write his own suicide note.  Then he shoots him.

"That's how Roger Balfour committed suicide, is it?" asks Burke of the Yard as he wraps up the case.  "Sorry i had to be so rough with you, Mr Hibbs, but i guess your reward was worth it!"

Oh.  He's objectifying the radiant Marceline Day. Still, i suppose i did a bit.

Another case, another collar for Burke, P. I..

I'm not quite sure what to make of that.  I'm not sure anyone can give an actual opinion on a film based solely upon an after-the-fact reconstruction to begin with, but that was...  Well, i enjoyed it.  I would have preferred another way than the "cheat" ending, and for the legendary Lon Chaney to have actually played a vampire rather than some kind of Fake Shemp for a maverick detective.  But, in this life, you can't always get what you want.

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