The early decades of filmmaking were essentially the Wild West. It was a time of experimentation and little to no regulation, and one that continues to fascinate movie buffs – especially considering how many of those early silent films were lost due to neglect or fire.
Among those bygone pictures, one looms especially large in the public imagination: the supposedly lost film London After Midnight. The 1927 silent production starred Lon Chaney, and the horror mystery film was considered controversial from the moment of its release. It was spooky, certainly, but the movie attained notoriety after a murder in 1928. The killer claimed to have seen visions of Lon Chaney's character, who supposedly urged him to carve up a woman with a razor. The London After Midnight murder made headlines and added to the movie's dark allure.
Was there some malevolent force at work in London After Midnight? Was it a cursed movie, or simply a convenient excuse for a deranged criminal? The true power of the film will likely remain a mystery; the last known copy was destroyed in the 1967 fire that ravaged the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer vaults. But a reconstructed version made from photographs is still available for viewing – if you dare.
On October 23, 1928, a bleeding, disoriented man named Robert Williams was discovered on the ground in London's Hyde Park. A blood-covered razor was on the ground beside him – as was the lifeless body of a woman, Julia Mangan. When police arrived, Williams pointed to Mangan and cried, "I did it, she has been teasing me."
Williams was arrested and later brought to trial at the Old Bailey. He claimed that he and Mangan were friends and that he wanted to marry her, but she had refused. Williams said the last thing he remembered that night was hearing Mangan whistling:
"Then I felt as if my head were going to burst, and that steam was coming out of both sides. All sorts of things came to my mind. I thought a man had me in a corner and was pulling faces at me. He threatened and shouted at me that had where he wanted me!"
Who was the man? None other than actor Lon Chaney, whom Williams had recently seen in London After Midnight. Williams claimed Chaney's eerie character had somehow possessed him and drove him to murder. The jury was unable to determine a verdict, but a 1929 retrial declared Williams guilty and he was sentenced to death. At the last moment, however, he was instead ordered to live out his days in a mental institution.
Actor Lon Chaney was known as the "Man of a Thousand Faces" due to his mastery of advanced makeup techniques. He put those skills to use playing grotesque, often frightening characters in films including The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Unholy Three.
In London After Midnight, Chaney took on multiple roles. The film's plot concerned a man who was mysteriously murdered, and his friend's attempts to uncover who did it. Chaney portrayed both the detective and the chief suspect, a sinister, pointy-toothed man in black. Some film historians credit this figure as the first vampire in American cinema.
Surviving stills of the movie reveal Chaney as a scary entity – perhaps not terrifying enough to drive someone to murder, but certainly shocking enough to inspire nightmares.
Even before the 1928 murder, London After Midnight caused a stir. It discussed the topic of suicide, an act which was not generally mentioned in polite society. After Williams committed his crime, the film became associated with unspeakable violence.
London After Midnight wasn't exactly a critical darling. Some reviewers complained that the collaboration between Lon Chaney and director Tod Browning wasn't their best – certainly not as good as The Unholy Three, their previous project. Plus, they argued, the plot just didn't make sense. Why would ghoulish freaks suddenly inhabit a house where a man had been murdered?
Moviegoers, as they often do, totally disagreed with the critics. The movie made nearly $1 million in ticket sales, an impressive figure for the times. It was Chaney and Browning's most successful film together.