The Monstrous Empathy of Lon Chaney

Hereditary Horror: Lon Chaney, his son, and confronting the human grotesque.
By  · Published on June 25th, 2017

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Hereditary Horror: Lon Chaney, his son, and confronting the human grotesque.

In ‘Silver Screen Fiend,’ Patton Oswalt recounts a formative screening of an eight-millimetre print of Nosferatu. It was Halloween at the public library and he was five. The room was peppered with the faint burning smell of the projector bulb igniting microscopic dust particles (which our author reminds us, is mostly dead skin). The children were traumatized, and in a footnote Oswalt cautions:

“Show your kids Irréversible, Salo, or The Last Temptation of Christ before you show them any silent film. Even the benign ones are unintended windows into stuttery, subconscious terror rhythms.”

Horror imagery has a tendency to corkscrew its way into young minds. As a kid, when we’d visit our neighborhood video store I’d make a b-line for the horror section. I’d sit on the rain-stained hardwood in front of that demonic altar perusing each VHS sleeve like a forbidden grimoire. This is where I first glimpsed Amy’s gaping, toothy maw in Fright Night, the Technicolor flesh heap of From Beyond, and the sinister ferocity of Peter Lorre; images that burrowed into my mind’s eye and laid eggs that haunt me to this day. It was also the first time I saw Lon Chaney. Or rather—some mangled, nightmarish horror-show credited as Lon Chaney, the shapeshifter born on April Fool’s Day 1883 to two deaf parents who took silent cinema by storm.

Years later, when I finally watched The Hunchback of Notre Dame, I felt like that kid rifling through the horror section. Chaney’s performance felt like cinematic forbidden fruit; a repulsive image that I was incapable and unwilling to tear my eyes from. The kind of cataclysmic vision that would prompt Stanley Kubrick to tell Vincent D’Onofrio to “be big—Lon Chaney big,” in Full Metal Jacket. As I was to learn, Chaney’s hallmark was walking the fine line between the noxious and the mesmerizing. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the disfigured ghoul of Phantom of the Opera.

The Phantom’s unmasking is one of the most famous moments in a silent film. As he sits at his organ, Christine loosens his mask and, as original reviewer Carl Sandburg puts it: “her fingers give one final twitch—and there you are!” There you are indeed: Lon “Man of 1,000 Faces” Chaney with a defacement more gut-churning than any later version. His mouth a cavernous wreck, his nose a crooked pit, his eyes bulging: “Feast your eyes, glut your soul, on my accursed ugliness!”

Chaney’s are horrific, striking figures that grab you by the throat and demand that you look at them. Astute readers will recognize this as the first commandment of American photographer/’anti-ChristWilliam Mortensen. Mortensen and Chaney were good friends, who bonded while working together on Mr. Wu in 1927, and West of Zanzibar the following year. It’s said that Chaney modeled for Mortensen, and as a documentary on Mortensen narrated by Vincent Price suggests, the early-Hollywood horror epitomized by Chaney and frequent Chaney-collaborator Tod Browning may have inspired much of Mortensen’s approach. This thesis is particularly convincing in Mortensen’s “Black Magic,” “The Possessed,” and “Belphegor,” which resonate acutely with Chaney films like The Penalty, The Miracle Man, The Unknown, and the Babadook-anticipating London After Midnight.

Speaking of The Babadook, when asked about Chaney’s visual influence director Jennifer Kent had this to say: 

“What I love about [the promotional still for London After Midnight]…is that you can see that it’s a person’s face. It’s just a face that’s been distorted—without CGI obviously—but manipulated so that it looks human, but almost not. And I think London After Midnight, shot with his face and his mouth pulled apart like that, is really frightening.”

That’s just it: “human, but almost not.” Doc says something similar to Chaney’s character in West of Zanzibar: “One minute you’re a fiend and the next…you’re almost human.” With few exceptions, Chaney’s characters are defined by this disfigurement. An extremely skilled and innovative makeup artist, Chaney took these physical mutations upon himself, inspiring the morbid phrase: “don’t step on that spider…it might be Lon Chaney.” In Hunchback, Chaney wore a real glass eye, a 20-pound plaster hump, and a harness that strapped his left shoulder to his left hip. In Penalty, he compressed the fuck out of his legs with leather stumps to convince audiences he was a double amputee. For Phantom, he clouded his eyes with egg-whites and pulled his nose up with wires, which had the unfortunate side effect of causing it to bleed.

Chaney with this makeup kit, a repurposed tackle box.

By the power of Chaney’s hand, these characters took on a vile and ghastly appearance—and at the same time, through his performative deft, a profound and unmistakable pity. Chaney, in a rare interview with Movie Weekly, explains it best:

“I wanted to remind people that the lowest types of humanity may have within them the capacity for supreme self-sacrifice…Most of my roles have carried the theme of self-sacrifice or renunciation. These are the stories I wish to do.”

Chaney was an expert, not in monsters with human faces but in humans with monstrous ones. It’s been noted that physical aberrations were more present during Chaney’s tenure in Hollywood. More than one critic has suggested that Chaney’s characters were “a way in which the effects and consequences of World War I—the mass mutilation of men’s bodies and the return of these men to society”—could be dealt with on-screen. In this way, in conjunction with silent film’s willingness to lean into sentiment, Chaney advocated for a space that collapsed the distance between horror and heartbreak. “Virg, make me look frightening and repulsive,” Chaney once said to Phantom DoP Virgil Miller, “but at the same time make the audience love me.”

Quasimodo was exactly what he appeared to be. Not somebody’s bad dream or hellish vision, but a deformed, tragic, and distinctly sympathetic grotesque. In an interview for Kevin Brownlow’s comprehensive documentary, Ray Bradbury put it this way: “[Chaney] brings that part of you out into the open, because you fear that you are not loved, you fear that you will never be loved, you fear that there is some part of you that’s grotesque, that the world will turn away from.” It’s a theme that would pave the way for the Universal horror classics only a few years later.

Almost symbolically, Chaney’s life ended with the death of the silent era when he succumbed to cancer at the age of 47. He only had one “talkie” under his belt, a remake of The Unholy Three, which he’d originally made with Browning five years earlier. And while it’s a damnable shame Chaney never got to explore his demonstrable aptitude for sound pictures, the universe works in mysterious ways. Chaney’s passing paved the way for the indomitable Jack P. Pierce, the man responsible for some of the midcentury’s most iconic monsters including the Wolf Man, which of course starred Chaney’s son, Lon Chaney Jr.

Considered his big break, Chaney Jr.’s turn as the brutish and sympathetic Lennie in Lewis Milestone’s Of Mice and Men would prove prophetic of his career. Of Chaney Jr.’s many many monsters (he holds the distinction of being the only actor to portray all four monsters in Universal’s central line-up), the Wolf Man is undoubtedly his most celebrated. Wolf Man sees the endearing and personable Larry contorted involuntarily into a monstrosity; “the way you walked was thorny,” pronounces the mysterious Maleva over Larry’s newly-human corpse, “through no fault of your own.” Throughout, the film muddies the water between the human and the monstrous. In particular, the authorities, including the elder Talbot (Claude Rains), doubt the existence of werewolves but readily concede that “like most legends, it must have some basis in fact…probably an ancient explanation of the dual personality in each of us.”

This, I think, was Lon Chaney Sr.’s legacy: an insistence that we empathize with the horrific through complicity. That it resemble us, disturbingly so—“human, but almost not.” That this recognizable and frightful otherness mesmerize us and command our sympathy.

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Based in the Pacific North West, Meg enjoys long scrambles on cliff faces and cozying up with a good piece of 1960s eurotrash. As a senior contributor at FSR, Meg's objective is to spread the good word about the best of sleaze, genre, and practical effects.