Friday 21 October 2011

London After Midnight

Once A Lon A Time

London After Midnight US 1927
Directed by Todd Browning
Restoration from stills by Rick Schmidlin 2002
LCM DVD Region 0

So there I was, in a one-day film bazaar in a museum in London, and I spied a bootleg copy of London After Midnight for a fiver. Now most people reading this who are into movies will understand why my immediate reaction was to try to control my gawping facial muscles which probably looked like someone had plugged my backside into an electrical socket... whilst simultaneously reaching into my pocket to extract this princely sum of £5 from my wallet.

London After Midnight, you see, is a very rare and lost silent film classic starring the man of a thousand faces, Lon Chaney Sr, in one of the more iconic of his horror make-ups. That gawping-eyed, top hatted vampire with all the teeth filed into points you might have stuck in the back of your visual memory somewhere? That’s Lon Chaney Sr in London After Midnight. It’s not an image one easily forgets and the loss of this one is particularly galling because we used to have a working print of this in living memory (for some people’s living memories who are just a smidgeon older than me that is). The last print was accidentally destroyed in a fire at MGM in 1967 and it’s been on everybody’s “to find” radar ever since then.

Now I have to say, before I go any further, that I have found long sought after and lost or supposedly commercially unreleasable gems at the various London film fairs before, going for a fiver... so I wasn’t being totally naive, after some of the stuff I’ve stumbled across, in thinking this might actually be something like an actual and workable (if barely watchable) print of this movie from a “collector’s” private archive. It wasn’t such a hard stretch given that a film none of us would ever had thought we’d see restored in a pretty much complete form, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, had recently been discovered, expensively restored and released to much critical salivating (I plan on watching this version, finally, very soon). Also, I remembered reading a story on Aint-It-Cool-News back in 2008 that a copy of the London After Midnight print had been found in the UK... but that story grew cold and it was obviously a hoax or, at the very least, an enthusiastic assumption made from incorrect information. Still, my fingers were crossed and my expression was hopeful... like I said, I’d stumbled upon things before at events like these.

Alas, this dream was not to be and, after getting the DVD home and onto a player, it turns out that this is the “restored” version commissioned by Ted Turner and produced by Rick Schmidlin in 2002 and not the actual motion picture. And, to boot, the transfer on this DVD is jumpy and erratic and definitely at the low end of the spectrum of bootlegs made from such “found objects” (presumably this was from a broadcast on TNT at some point).

So how do I review this DVD since, well, this really isn’t a print of London After Midnight in much sense of the word? Well.. the answer is... on its own terms, I guess.

What this particular restoration does well, considering it is literally a 45 minute burst made up of publicity stills which are panned and scanned over while zooming in and out, is to get the timing down just right... with the intertitles and relationships of shots cut slickly against each other, to trick your brain into thinking you are watching a pretty close approximation of a silent film. The intertitle cards are presumably taken from a surviving script of the movie. I’m betting the original movie would have aired on TV sometime before the print was destroyed in 1967 (alas, before the days when off-air recording at home was beyond the audience imagination) so there may have even been someone who could remember a screening called in to assist... I don’t really know. All I know about this restoration is two things...

One: It’s a very good approximation of a silent movie which manages to just about hold your interest and doesn’t get boring and...

Two: It’s nothing like (and nor could it ever be) the true experience of watching London After Midnight.

Now then, as the story unfolded before me (with its new piano score) in dynamic interpretations of static publicity stills, I realised that this was Browning’s original version of a film he remade in 1935 as a talkie with Bela Lugosi... Mark Of The Vampire. Now Mark Of The Vampire, and I may be a philistine for admitting this, is not a movie I’ve ever really held a great affection for, asides from a minor infatuation with Carroll Borland who also appeared briefly in an early episode of the original Flash Gordon serial. It’s a bland movie and although many people feel it’s a finer film than Browning’s version of Dracula from 1931... I am not one of those people. Dracula is a great movie which I can repeat-watch in any of its 1931 versions but Mark Of The Vampire is not something I could imagine revisiting that often... maybe once every ten years or so.

Also, the fact that in both versions of this tale, the vampires are revealed at the end to have been circus performers hired to play vampires to manipulate a murderer into confessing his guilt, has always seemed a bit twee and “scooby doo comfort zone” for me. Give me real bloodsuckers any day of the week.

From what I can see from this “presentation” of the film, I would probably have responded to London After Midnight a little better. Frankly, seeing Lon Chaney prancing about in that get up would have been enough to enthrall me I would imagine... but all this is speculation. There are presumably no surviving “screen-caps” from London After Midnight and so these are probably all specially posed stills manufactured from the publicity department at the time. Shot’s like Chaney marauding a lady in the background of a shot but with him in the foreground and with his head twisted around to stare into the camera are, I would suggest, not reflective of the content of the actual movie. And as such, I really can’t, in any way, shape or form, even attempt to review London After Midnight and get away with anything other than a sham. This is not the real deal.


Whether this 45 minute oddity is reflective of what the real experience for audiences would have been or not, what it most certainly has going for it is that it’s a nice little tribute to both Chaney and Browning and fans of either would probably be very pleased to have this in their “to watch” pile. So definitely worth a purchase if you want to just wet your toe in the general proximity of Chaney’s iconic horror creation... perhaps a little less of a recommendation to people who are not that familiar with the rhythm and timing of silent film but a strong shout out to movie lovers in general. Give it a go if you can find a copy.

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