Lon Chaney’s ability to transform himself using makeup techniques earned him the nickname ‘The Man of a Thousand Faces’. Today he is regarded as one of the most versatile and powerful actors of early cinema, renowned for his characterisations of tortured, often grotesque and afflicted characters, and his groundbreaking artistry with makeup – as well as being the father of The Wolfman (1941) star, Lon Chaney Jr. Whilst Chaney senior is best known for his starring roles in such silent horror films as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), it is one of his lesser-known films that remains perhaps his most infamous: London After Midnight (1927). The movie is now lost and remains one of the most famous and eagerly sought of all lost films, the last known copy having been destroyed in the 1967 MGM vault fire. The reason it is so infamous (and perhaps also the reason why it was destroyed) is that, according to urban legend, anyone who watches the complete, original cut of the film is doomed to become suddenly, incurably insane. This defence was most famously used in the 1928 murder trial of a man accused of murdering a woman in Hyde Park, London – unsuccessfully in that case.
The sad truth of early cinema in the USA is that, of American silent films, far more have been lost than have survived, and of American sound films made from 1927 to 1950, perhaps half have been lost. The largest cause of silent film loss was intentional destruction, as silent films were perceived as having little or no commercial value after the end of the silent era by 1930. Most of the early films did not survive because of wholesale junking by the studios – they simply needed vault space and the materials were expensive to house. Many other early motion pictures were lost because the nitrate film used for nearly all 35 mm negatives and prints made before 1952 was highly flammable. Fires have therefore destroyed entire archives of films; for example, a storage vault fire in 1937 destroyed all the original negatives of Fox Pictures’ pre-1935 films. One consequence of this widespread lack of care is that the work of many early filmmakers and performers has made its way to the present in fragmentary form. The other, more unforeseen, consequence is that some lost films have acquired a semi-mythical cult status.
Between 1912 and 1917, Lon Chaney was a prominent, though poorly paid, actor at Universal Studios. His skill with makeup gained him many parts in the highly competitive casting atmosphere. During this time, Chaney befriended the husband-wife director team of Joe De Grasse and Ida May Park, who gave him substantial roles in their pictures, and further encouraged him to play macabre characters. After leaving the studio, Chaney struggled for the first year as a character actor. It was not until 1918 when playing a substantial role in William S. Hart’s picture, Riddle Gawne, that Chaney’s talents as a character actor were truly recognised by the industry. As Quasimodo, the bell ringer of Notre Dame, and Erik, the ‘phantom’ of the Paris Opera House, Chaney created two of the most grotesquely deformed characters in film history. However, the portrayals usually sought to elicit a degree of sympathy and pathos among viewers not overwhelmingly terrified or repulsed by the monstrous disfigurements of these victims of fate. London After Midnight was somewhat different.
The film starts when the head of a cultured and peaceful house on the outskirts of London, Roger Balfour, is found dead of a bullet wound. He appears to have been killed by his own hand but, some five years later, Edward C. Burke of Scotland Yard, detective and hypnotist, tries to solve this mystery. He attempts to reproduce the scene of the crime and hypnotize the suspect into re-enacting the murder. Viewed as more absurd than truly scary at the time – especially because of Chaney’s over-the-top ‘vampire’ makeup – the film gained notoriety following the 1928 Hyde Park murder. The killer claimed Chaney’s performance drove him temporarily insane, but his plea was rejected and he was convicted of the crime. Afterwards, an account published in the papers claimed that the prisoner thought he saw Lon Chaney in a corner, shouting and making faces at him, while he carried out the crime. Many years later this incident formed the basis of the plot of an episode of the offbeat British crime drama Whitechapel, where a psychopath is driven insane by watching a previously-unknown last copy of London After Midnight. After watching it for one last time, he hands it over to one of the policemen and asks him to protect it. Leaving fiction aside, it is thought that no complete copies of the film remain today – or at least, no one has ever owned up to having one.