Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Honourable Mentions: London after Midnight

In 1927 Todd Browning released London After Midnight starring Lon Chaney. The film, based on Browning’s short story ‘The Hypnotist’ is lost, the last known copy being destroyed in a fire in the 60s. In 2002 TCM commissioned Rick Schmidlin to reconstruct the movie using still photographs taken during production. This is the closest most of us are ever going to get to seeing the original movie.

Because this is a reconstruction from limited resources I decided not to go down the lines of reviewing the film. I cannot review the actual movie, given its lost status, and it would be unfair to criticise the reconstruction given it was built from limited resources in order that it might offer a flavour of what has been lost. The limited resources do muddle the story a little (unless, of course, the original was muddled in the same places) but knowledge of the 1935 remake, Mark of the Vampire, adequately un-muddles any issues.

Indeed the base concept and story of the two films are very similar. The main difference is in the fact that Roger Balfour (Claude King), whose murder sparks off the events, is not killed in a way that looks like a vampire attack but with a gunshot made to look like suicide. I have read thoughts that this is a good thing, however it makes one wonder at the convoluted plan that investigator Burke (Lon Chaney) comes up with. In the legend soaked setting of the later version the very setting does make one suspend belief more when faced with the elaborate plan.

So essentially Balfour is murdered, suicide is the official verdict but five years later his estate is taken over by what are deemed to be vampires and Balfour seems to have returned from his tomb. Burke's main concern in all this is exposing the murderer.

We have two main vampires. Lon Chaney plays one and what a look he has. With his rows of sharpened teeth, beaver-skin hat and maniacal stare he makes quite a sight. The shame of the reconstruction is that we cannot see him in action but Schmidlin does his best to add a semblance of vibrancy with zooms into the stills.

His companion is credited as Luna, the bat girl (Edna Tichenor). In many respects she seems creepier than her counter-part in the remake and one can again only wonder what she was like in the actual filmed footage. One area in which the remake should have improved upon things was in giving us some background to the actual vampires - until the censors cut said background - this seems to be missing in London after Midnight from the first instance.

The film does manage to carry vampire lore. We see a book and read ourselves from “The Undead. The true history of vampyrs. Being a compilation of authentic sources of quaint and curious phenomena. – London 1721”. In this we read: “These are not ghosts or spectres from the shadowy realm. They are ‘vampyrs’, dead bodies that leave their graves at night and feed upon the blood of the living. When the sun is high in daytime, the vampyrs sometimes take the form of bats. As such they seek sleep in the seclusion of spots accursed.” This is interesting lore wise as it indicates that, beyond returning to their graves, the vampire would polymorph as a form of daytime rest.

The film also includes an unusual form of vampire ward. “Place over the key hole of the sleeping apartment a drawn sword of sharpened steel and a wreath of tube roses”. Now the use of roses is not unusual, wild rose is often utilised in the vampire genre. This is the only time I can think of that a drawn sword is used and whilst two seem to be used and crossed, it is clearly the sword itself which is important.

The restoration is a fascinating glimpse into what we have unfortunately missed and the biggest shame is that it is very unlikely that we will ever get opportunity to experience the actual film.

The imdb page for the original film is here.

The imdb page for the restoration is here.


Anonymous said...

Of great interest, indeed! Thanks for the notice, Andy. I had not heard of this.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

no problem Mark, the whole set seems up your alley as it where

mice said...

I have seen this on TCM and I agree its a d*mn shame. The visuals are stunning. I think this would have been a favorite of mine.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Mice... You never know, we could be lucky. Somewhere in an attic somewhere... well its good to live in hope.

Arbogast said...

This was a nice tribute to Lon Chaney on his birthday, whether it was intentional or mere happenstance.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Many thanks Arbogast - it was a complete happenstance - but a nice one all the same