31+ Days of Horror. 33 Horror Movies. 33 Reviews. Hooptober Challenges and Bonus Tasks.
View my 2016 Cinema Shame/Hoop-Tober Watch Pile Shame-a-thon Statement here.
Nature of Shame:
Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist:
Decade – 1920’s
The Advance Word: It was on the DVR and Joan Crawford.
#17. The Unknown (1927)
I’d planned to rewatch Jean Epstein’s La chute de la maison Usher for the “silent movie” requirement of the Hoop-Tober 3.0 Challenge but one night I was in bed, skimming the DVR for a movie to watch and I found that I’d set this to record from TCM. I often watch silent or foreign movies in bed at night because I can keep the volume down so not to disturb Mrs. 30Hz — who actually likes going to sleep at a relatively reasonable hour. The Unknown checked off a couple of CinemaShame/Hoop-Tober challenge boxes so I ran with it. I actually don’t own any unwatched silent horror films. Hurray for small victories.
Oh, hey, by the way… you’ve seen this movie before, knucklehead.
This brand of shame turned out to be something entirely different. I have a weird vault-like memory for recalling exactly when and where and with whom I first saw a movie. I assume this vault is taking up space that could have been helpful during high school trigonometry or that Java class I almost failed in college. The Unknown, true to title, escaped cataloging.
One should remember Lon Chaney throwing knives at 22-year-old gypsy Joan Crawford with his toes. Even once the trace memory kicked in, I kept watching. I couldn’t look away. Lon Chaney’s performance in The Unknown is haunting. ‘The Man of a Thousand Faces” created a pitiable villain of disarming obsession and enviable passion.
Chaney plays Alonzo, a double-thumbed murderer hiding among circus “freaks” by pretending he has no arms. He falls in love with the gypsy girl Estrellita. Estrellita, however, is also coveted by Malabar the Strong Man. She cowers at his musclebound touch and laments the men that always want to touch her. Malabar’s not a bad guy; he’s just a broheim that’s clumsy with affection. Meanwhile, Alonzo waxes Estrellita’s father when he uncovers Alonzo’s true identity. Estrellita turns to Alonzo for comfort, the man without arms and without groping paws. She repeatedly talks about how amazing it would be to love a man without hands.
Alonzo tries to raise his hand. To say “ME!” ME, PLEASE!” but of course his hands are tied… our at least bound in a corset. To get that close to Estrellita, to embrace Estrellita he’d need to do away with those pesky appendages once and for all.
So he does.
Maybe that doesn’t sound especially unnerving. Maybe that sounds like a bunch of silly silent movie hyperbole… but in the hands of Tod Browning, that silly little slice of hyperbole left me unsettled all over again. I’d forgotten about the amputation. Consider the special brand of obsession that must incite someone to remove body parts. Lon Chaney lays bare every ounce of Alonzo’s emotional anguish and moral ambivalence.
The choice to amputate perfectly good arms, as it does, backfires. When Alonzo returns to the circus, he finds that Estrellita has fallen in love with the hamfisted Malabar and he’s arrived just in time to attend their wedding. Alonzo snaps and plots his final revenge.
The Unknown serves as a direct precursor to Browning’s more famous outing: 1932’s Freaks (which also includes the love triangle between a circus freak, a beauty and a strong man). The thematic reliance upon circus and carnival acts was no happenstance. Browning himself ran away to join the circus at 16. During those early years in show business, he worked a carnival “talker,” performed in his own act billed as the “Living Corpse,” and clowned around with Ringling Brothers. Not until he met D.W. Griffith at a variety theater in New York City, did Tod Browning venture into filmmaking. (He’s an extra in Intolerance, by the way.)
While Freaks is perhaps more unsettling in its own visceral way, The Unknown proves to be the more successful film overall due to Lon Chaney’s singular performance. Contemporary reviews likened the film to “a visit to the dissection room at the hospital.” Undoubtedly, Browning’s film ventures into uncomfortable territory but our modern sensibilities should be sturdier than that of a 1927 cinema critic.
While Browning’s story maintains that same disturbing sense of macabre drama, our 2016 sensibilities will be drawn (and quartered — you’ll understand if you watch the film) to the early notions of gender politics and sexual harassment. The love triangle where the “hot” girl chooses the insensitive “jock” over the “weird” guy remains timeless social dynamism.
And with that I’ll move on to some actual Watch Pile shame. Time is running low, and these movies aren’t watching themselves.
Joan Crawford at 22 doesn’t come with the crazy eyes. Who knew? (Well, technically I did… because I’d seen this before, but that’s beside the point.)
30Hz Movie Rating:
Availability: The Unknown can be found on TCM’s Lon Chaney Collection DVD set.
Earlier 2016 31 Days of Horror entries: #1. Vampyros Lesbos / #2. A Chinese Ghost Story / #3. The Haunting of Morella / #4. Delirium (1972) / #5. A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin / #6. She-Wolf of London / #7. Son of Frankenstein / #8. Killerfish / #9. The Bride of Re-Animator / #10. A Bay of Blood / #11. The Seventh Victim / #12. The Fly (1958) / #13. The Fly (1986) / #14. Deep Red / #15. Dracula’s Daughter / #16. Day of the Animals