London After Midnight
Reminiscing about a lost film by Kerry E.B. Black
On this day, 17 December, 1927, MGM Studios released the American silent mystery film “London After Midnight.” Director Tod Browning of “Dracula,” 1931 fame, based the movie on his short story “The Hypnotist.” “London After Midnight” was Browning’s first attempt at a vampire film and starred Lon Chaney in a dual role. Chaney also provided uncredited makeup artistry which produced an iconic look for its monster. Some of the effects he used included sharpened teeth and a haunting eye apparatus which required monocle-like wire fittings. Fishhooks in his cheeks created the character’s eerie grin. Chaney exaggerated the vampire-like qualities of the nemesis to differentiate it from the film’s investigator, since he portrayed both. The movie includes a bit where Chaney used his famous makeup case. Modern filmmakers of “Babadook” found inspiration and incorporated Chaney’s dark-hatted character into its own monster. Walt Disney’s Haunted Mansion also used Lon Chaney’s depiction as a model for their hatbox ghost.
A melancholy menace permeates the story. Roger Balfour (Claude King) supposedly committed suicide. Five years later, his neighbor Sir James Hamlin (Henry B. Walthall) discovered mysterious interlopers including a ghostly woman called Luna the Bat Girl (Edna Tichenor), her assistant (Andy MacLennan), and a black-hatted fellow capering in the abandoned Balfour’s estate. He and his nephew, Arthur Hibbs, called on Scotland Yard’s inspector Burke for assistance. Arthur (Conrad Nagel) feared the ghoulish intruders were vampires. Lucille Balfour (Marceline Day), Roger Balfour’s now grown daughter joined the investigation but began hearing a voice similar to her father’s calling from the garden. The Balfour’s staff, including Williams the Butler (Percy Williams) and the comedic new maid (Polly Moran) participated in the action as the cast discovered Roger Balfour’s body missing from its tomb. Hypnotism, requests for trust, gunshots, and an abduction spurred the action until they solved the mystery.
When the film premiered at the Miller Theater in Missouri, set musicians Jack and Sam Feinburg heightened the experience for those in attendance by performing works by Greig, Rappe, Wagner, and Ase. The film’s production was $152,000, and it grossed $721,000 at the domestic box office, marking a successful collaboration between Lon Chaney and Tod Browning. Contemporary critics at the New York Times criticized the “sometimes incoherent storyline,” and Harrison’s Report felt the story was nonsensical. However, Film Daily called it “a story to disturb the nervous system of the more sensitive patrons,” and The Warren Tribune noted Chaney’s presence in most every scene “in a dual role that tests his skill to no small degree.”
Although the last known copy of “London After Midnight” burned in 1967 during a vault fire at MGM, Turner Classic Movies reconstructed the film in 2002 using the original script and film stills. It gives a feel for what the movie must have been like. The Internet Movie Data Base lists “London After Midnight” was release in eleven other countries. In Australia, it’s known as “Der Vampyr,” “The Hypnotist” in England, and “La Casa Del Horror” in Spain. Film enthusiasts hope to find an undamaged copy of the film. In 1935, Tod Browning remade the film as a talkie “Mark of the Vampire” starring Lionel Barrymore and Bela Lugosi in the Lon Chaney roles.
One ill-intentioned soul cited Lon Chaney’s portrayal in this film as an unsuccessful defense for an attack. In the 1990’s, Californian songwriter and musician Sean Brennan began a gothic rock band named London After Midnight.