The Unknown (1927) A Silent Film Review

Lon Chaney plays a serial killer with two thumbs on one hand who hides out from the cops by posing as an armless knife-thrower in a traveling circus. He falls in love with Joan Crawford, who is afraid of men’s hands. After strangling her father, Chaney decides to cut off his own arms for real in order to win Crawford’s love, as one does. Chaos ensues. I did not make any of that up.
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Fun Size Review: The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

An incompetent director feuding with the star, romantic leads who couldn’t act their way out of a paper bag, a flurry of last-minute cuts, a print slashed apart in a bizarre attempt at sound conversion… and yet The Phantom of the Opera remains one of the iconic films of the silent era. Strong source material, set design and the hard work of Lon Chaney pay off in the end. This is an inconsistent film but also strangely charming. Not to be missed.

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Missing the Silents: London After Midnight and Mark of the Vampire

Hello and welcome to a new series! As you may already know, a good number of silent films have been lost, some of them quite famous. However, many of these films were remade as talkies. Some of the remakes even used the original silent as reference material before it was lost. Missing the Silents is going to focus on these remakes and examine how they can help us imagine what the original might have been like.

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Hello, I am your kind host who does not plan to murder you or perform deranged experiments on you while you sleep. Animated GIF


No one could gnaw scenery like Lon Chaney, I think we can all agree on that little point. Even though he makes his entrance late in The Monster, he still manages some moments of exquisite hamminess.

You think my headline was exaggerating? No, this is exactly what he is trying to do. Our hapless heroes are staying the night in his asylum (!) and he is trying to assure them that all is well and normal and not at all dangerous. Mwahaha.

The Monster gets a fair amount of flak but I took it for what it was. It’s a little horror comedy meant to entertain for an hour or so. Nothing more, nothing less. Chaney clearly understands that he is working with pure hokum and he adjusts his performance accordingly. Is it a masterpiece? No. Is it a fun way to spend a rainy afternoon? You’d better believe it!

(You can read my full-length review here. And, yes, I do address the “stolen from Sherlock Jr.” rumors.)

Availability: Warner Archive released this film on DVD. Nice print, good score, good buy.

Silent Movie Rule #16: Stay away from windows (especially if Conrad Veidt & Lon Chaney are in the cast)

cabinet of dr caligari


This is not what you want to see when you look out the window. Lon Chaney was the king of terrifying gazes. And, egad, it’s even worse when he smiles!

I have said if before and I will say it again: Chaney is justly praised for his makeup skills but it is his talent as an actor that really makes him frightening. He could be just as scary (or scarier) with no makeup at all.

(This GIF is from The Penalty, one of his best films. He plays a legless criminal mastermind determined to take over San Francisco. Straw hats are involved somehow. Just go with it. You can read my review here.)


The other fellow prone to sneaking in through windows was Conrad Veidt, called King of the Gooseflesh in Germany. Reportedly, his wife had an awful time hiring servants as they refused to work in a house owned by such a bloodthirsty monster. The great irony was that Veidt, for all his on-screen crimes, was supposed to be an absolute love in person.

(This GIF is, of course, from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. You can read my review/technical breakdown here.)

Availability: Both films are available on DVD and Blu-ray disc. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari just got an utterly gorgeous restoration and re-release. Seriously, the picture is so clear you can count the threads of Cesare’s sweater. Get it for yourself or the film buff who has everything. It also comes on DVD, if you have not made the high-def jump yet. The Penalty‘s new restoration only came out on Blu-ray but the older DVD edition is still pretty nice. (I should note, though, that the DVD does feature a rather controversial modern score. The Blu-ray switched it out for a more traditional orchestral arrangement.)

Fun Size Review: The Penalty (1920)


Lon Chaney is at his Chaney-iest in one of his first solo lead hits. He plays a criminal mastermind who had his legs amputated below the knee when he was a kid. This did not amuse him and he wants revenge. And hats. Lots and lots of straw hats. How else will he take over San Francisco? The movie is nuts and, thanks to Chaney, rather addictive. His painful makeup stands up to the test of time but it is his performance that really wins the day.

(Read my full-length review here.)

[toggler title=”How does it end? (click here for a spoiler)” ]Chaney has his head operated on, becomes good but then gets shot by members of his former gang, thus paying the penalty.[/toggler]

penalty-lon-chaney-silent-movie-scary-windowIf it were a dessert it would be:


Eyeball Cupcakes. It revels in its own macabre subject matter but no one is going to deny how tasty it is.

Availability: Kino has released a nice print on DVD, Blu-ray and via streaming. The DVD features an electronic score (and a rather controversial one too!) while the Blu-ray and streaming editions have orchestral scores.

Someone somewhere has got to do this at a party. Animated GIF


Ugh. Parties. Not a fan. This is because, a) I would rather be watching silent movies or reading a book and b) there is always someone who designates themselves the Fun Police and then proceeds to shame guests into playing Apples to Apples. (I run in fast circles, as you can clearly see.)

Just once, I would love to see someone do this. Dress up as Red Death and rebuke their merriment. The rebuking of merriment is highly underrated these days, I would like to see it come back in style.

(This is from The Phantom of the Opera. My review is here.)

Availability: High quality releases include the Image DVD and Blu-ray release and the two-disc Milestone edition (which also includes the 1925 version). The rule of thumb with this film: You get what you pay for.

The Phantom of the Opera (1925) A Silent Film Review

Here’s a movie that no one really wanted to make. Its production was troubled from the very beginning. From professional spats to last-minute recuts and reshoots, it had disaster written across it. So how did this hellish production end up as one of the most iconic and memorable horror films of all time? Does it live up to its reputation? Is it worth seeing for the casual viewer? We are going to engage in a little silent movie archaeology in order to find out.

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Silent Movie Rule #7: Don’t mess with Lon Chaney


Mr. Chaney was one of the most prolific and frightening villains in motion picture history. West of Zanzibar contains one of his most elaborate and warped vengeance schemes. The crime: Lionel Barrymore broke Chaney’s back and stole his wife. The revenge: Wait two decades, lay a trap that will conclude with torture and human sacrifice.

Seriously, just leave Chaney alone. It’s not worth it!

You can read my review here.

Availability: Released on DVD and via streaming.

Lon Chaney thinks that you’re a naughty scamp. Animated GIF


Just want to get this out in the open: Lon Chaney is one of the best and most interesting actors of the silent era. I love his work. But the man should never, ever play the vanilla male lead. Ever. Look at that face. That face was made for murder and mayhem or at least the righteous revenge of a sorely wronged man. In Nomads of the North, someone had the brilliant idea of casting him as a heroic fur trapper. His enemy is named Bucky.

I can’t even.

(Read my review here.)

Availability: Released on DVD by Image along with another Chaney film, The Shock. The Image release has a cheeky, fun score from Robert Israel, which adds considerably to its entertainment value. It has also been released as a budget disc by Alpha. I have not seen this version but the print is likely poor and the score is likely canned.

Fun Size Review: Nomads of the North (1920)

Kindred spirits.

Lon Chaney! Famed the world over for his portrayal of monsters, psychopaths, men on the path to self-destruction and… lovey-dovey backwoods fur trappers? Yes, Mr. Chaney was tapped as the romantic lead in this hot mess and the result was not pretty. The miscast Chaney is further hampered by a very strange script, which features talking animals, an overstaffed RCMP and a villain named Bucky. For superfans only.


(You can read my full-length review here.)

[toggler title=”How does it end? (click here for a spoiler)” ]Lon Chaney survives (!) and wins the heart and hand of his true love (!!!) Bucky burns to death in a forest fire.[/toggler]

If it were a dessert it would be:


S’mores Burger. Some things that are good on their own just do not belong together. Lon Chaney and lumberjack movies are two of these things.

Availability: Released on DVD by Image along with another Chaney film, The Shock. The Image release has a cheeky, fun score from Robert Israel, which adds considerably to its entertainment value. It has also been released as a budget disc by Alpha. I have not seen this version but the print is likely poor and the score is likely canned.

I really want to do this when people won’t even try to watch a silent movie. Animated GIF


Sometimes, I feel like a mother with a particularly picky child.

“Just try a few minutes of a silent movie.”

“No! I’ll hate it! It’s icky!”

“Just a little.”

“No, no, no!!!!”

If you have seen silent movies and don’t like them, well, that’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise. But if you have seen nary a one and yet still have an opinion?  Oh, honey, no.

Lon Chaney knows exactly how to get what he wants in The Monster. The heroes don’t want to see the, heh heh heh, room he has prepared? He doesn’t rely on threats. He simply insists that they take a look. (You can read my review of the movie here.)

Don’t be surprised if a take up a silver cigarette holder (even though I do not smoke) and repeat this line at my next movie night.

Availability: Available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Your house guest won’t leave? Do what Lon Chaney does. Animated GIF


No could do creepy quite like Lon Chaney. I’m not sure anyone wanted to do creepy quite like Lon Chaney. Well, Mr. Chaney had some rather practical methods for creeping out his house guests in The Monster. (You can read my review here.)

Step 1: Put on a big grin. A bizarrely long cigarette holder is an excellent accessory.

Step 2: Wait until your guest says some variation of “see you in the morning.”

Step 3: Grin wider and say, “Who knows if one will EVER see the morning?”

Step 4: Slowly close the door behind you.

Voila! With any luck, your house guest will flee and you will be rid of him.

(The Monster got a very nice release from Warner Archive. Good print, good score.)

Fun Size Review: The Wicked Darling (1919)


Lon Chaney and Tod Browning made evil music together in ten films. This was the first. Chaney’s not the star but he pretty much steals the show. The story is about Priscilla Dean’s soiled dove trying to go straight and marry a gentleman. Chaney is her nasty partner in crime who is determined to keep her in the underworld. As grimy as you could wish. Not a masterpiece in itself but a glimpse of things to come.

You can read my full-length review here.

[toggler title=”How does it end? (click here for a spoiler)” ]Chaney tries to gut Priscilla’s gentleman but she arrives in time to save the day. She gets her man, Chaney gets 20 to life.[/toggler]


If it were a desert it would be:


Deep Fried Twinkies. Plebeian, streetwise and probably not all that good for you but just try turning one down.

Availability: The Wicked Darling is available as an out-of-print DVD and as an in-print digital copy.

The Penalty (1920) A Silent Film Review

Lon Chaney as we know him really arrived with the release of this movie. It has everything we love about him: impressive makeup, criminal mischief, madness, murder and scenery chewed with rare abandon. Who wouldn’t want to see a movie about a double amputee criminal mastermind who plans to take over San Francisco with a gang of anarchists wearing stylish straw hats?
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