London After Midnight


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London After Midnight

(pop culture)

Frequently cited in histories of the horror movie as the first American vampire motion picture, London After Midnight (1927) remains important as a pioneering force in future American treatment of the vampire theme. London After Midnight came during the fruitful period of collaboration between director Tod Browning and character actor Lon Chaney, who had first worked together in 1919 on The Wicked Darling Law, and again in 1921 for Outside the Law and in 1925 on The Unholy Three. In 1925, Chaney returned to Universal Pictures for one of his most memorable roles, The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Chaney and Browning were united for the last time at MGM in 1927 for London After Midnight, based upon a short story by Browning called “The Hypnotist”, the title under which London After Midnight was released in England in response to British sensitivity.

The movie’s story line began approximately five years after a death had occurred in a haunted house. Inspector Burke of Scotland Yard had become convinced that the death was a murder, not an accident or suicide. He had two suspects, one a friend and the other a nephew of the deceased. He suggested to them that the murder was done by a vampire. The inspector, played by Chaney, then assumed the role of a vampire, for which he had prepared his own elaborate makeup. His actions as the vampire forced the guilty party to reveal his guilt at which time Chaney revealed his double identity. Although all the major elements of the vampire legend were incorporated into the film, in the end, of course, the vampire was explained away as a masquerade. The movie mixed the horror and mystery genres, but in the end was a mystery movie. It was one of Chaney’s last movies and one of the last silent horror films before the major studios moved into sound. Chaney had died by the time Browning made a sound version of London After Midnight in 1935 under the title Mark of the Vampire. In the later version, the Chaney part was divided between Bela Lugosi (the vampire) and Lionel Atwill (the inspector).

A fire at one of MGM’s vaults in the 1960s appears to have destroyed the last surviving print of London After Midnight, and as vampire fandom grew beginning in the 1970s, the film assumed a somewhat mythical status as a classic Chaney picture. Mark of the Vampire had made Universal a considerable amount of money. Stills from the picture indicated that Chaney did his usual fine job of weird and grotesque makeup with thin wires that made his eyes bulge. Chaney’s animal-like teeth, shown on the poster for the movie, made speech impossible.

There has been no way to appraise Browning’s directorial skills on the movie. Then, in 2002, Turner Movie Classics commissioned Rick Schmidlin to restore the movie using the original script and a set of still photographs assembled from the collections at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Fairbanks Center for Motion Picture Studies, the Margaret Herrick Library, and the University of Southern California Cinema-Television Library. An original musical score was added by Robert Israel. This new version was subsequently released on DVD as part of The Lon Chaney Collection. One leading gothic rock band paid homage to the movie by adopting it as the name of their band. London After Midnight was founded by Sean Brennan in 1987.

Sources:

Clarens, Carlos. Horror Movies: An Illustrated Survey. London: Secker & Warburg, 1968. 264 pp.
Coolidge-Rust, Marie. London After Midnight. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1928. 261 pp.
Flynn, John L. Cinematic Vampires. Jefferson, NC: McFarland Company, 1992. 320 pp.
Gebert, Michael. “Mike’s ‘London After Midnight’ Myths Page.” The Lon Chaney Home Page. Posted at http://www.michaelgebert.com/lam/lam1.html. Accessed on April 9, 2010.
Gifford, Denis. A Pictorial History of Horror Movies. London: Hamlyn, 1973. 216 pp.
Jones, Stephen. The Illustrated Vampire Movie Guide. London: Titan Books, 1991. 144 pp.
London After Midnight. New York: Cornwall Books, 1985. 178 pp.
“London After Midnight: Revelations in Black.” Ghastly 2 (1992): 9–12.
Sweeney, Gary. “Film Review: London After Midnight.” The Midnight Palace. Posted at http://www.midnightpalace.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=62. Accessed on April 9, 2010.
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