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Lon Chaney Reveled in Bringing His Misshapen Characters to Life

Blogger Stacie Ponder’s horror columns appear every Wednesday.

I’m always delighted to spot a famous face gallivanting around in a horror movie filmed before the actor hit the big time. Just about every star on the planet has at least one horror role in their past, from Oscar winners Holly Hunter and Tom Hanks (The Burning and He Knows You’re Alone , respectively) to the likes of Dana Carvey ( Halloween 2 ). More often than not, however, once folks hit the big time, they pretend their roles in fright flicks don’t exist — when was the last time Jennifer Aniston mentioned her stellar turn in Leprechaun? This week’s DVD release of the 1957 Lon Chaney biopic, Man of a Thousand Faces, serves to remind me how much times have changed; in the early days of film, a career in horror was something to be celebrated, not swept under the carpet.

A Life Made for Melodrama
Chaney’s life story is prime melodrama fodder: Born in 1883 to deaf parents, Chaney began his acting career as a vaudeville performer in 1902. After a stint in the theater world, he moved on to motion pictures as a character actor for Universal. His breakthrough role came in 1919, when he played the contortionist con man known as “The Frog” in The Miracle Man. Chaney’s abilities as a character actor were on display, but so were his skills as a makeup artist; he’d found the niche he’d run with throughout the remainder of his all-too-short career.

His contributions to the early days of horror have left us with some of the most enduring images in the genre. From his tortured turn as the Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) to the titular Phantom of the Opera (1925), Chaney delivered the jolts without ever uttering a word. If only modern horror filmmakers would take note of the power of silence and give it a shot… then again, where would modern horror filmmakers be if characters weren’t able to exclaim “Oh my God, you scared the sh-t outta me!” every five minutes?

While the unmasking of Erik the phantom remains one of the most shocking sequences ever committed to celluloid, the performance that has intrigued me since my days as a young’un poring over dogeared copies of Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine is Chaney’s appearance as the “vampire” in Tod Browning’s London After Midnight . Stills from the film, showcasing Chaney’s sunken eyes, stovepipe hat, and rows of razor-like teeth have given me the willies since the first time I saw them. Though I’ve been desperate to see the movie virtually my entire life, I’m afraid that will never come to pass: The last known print of the 1927 film was lost in a fire in the MGM vaults in 1965. Should I ever happen across a genie in a bottle, however, I may just use one of my wishes on finding another copy.

In order to ensure his amazing contributions to the world of horror would continue on even after his death, Chaney Sr gave us Chaney Jr, who would go on to leave his own indelible mark in the genre. Amongst his many achievements, Junior is the only actor to portray all four of Universal’s monster baddies: Wolf Man, Dracula, the Mummy, and Frankenstein’s Monster. If I were to attempt to be as prescient as Lon Chaney, and to ensure that my amazing contributions to the world of horror would continue on even after my death — I would leave a time capsule buried in my grandma’s backyard. Inside said time capsule, I’d include my beloved candle in the shape of Freddy Krueger’s head, a VHS copy of the 1986 aerobics-flavored slasher flick, Killer Workout, a VCR on which to play the aforementioned flick, and my DVD copy of Black Christmas signed by Margot Kidder. (Purists may insist that none of those things would really count as my amazing contributions per se. Well, fine. For those purists, I’ll be sure include a diatribe about… oh, let’s say the overuse of CGI or the Rosemary’s Baby remake in the capsule as well.)

Suffering for His Art
Chaney described his efforts as “extreme characterization,” and there was really nothing the man couldn’t achieve by… well, suffering for his art. While we all know how much I love me a good pillowcase-encased killer, putting a mere bag over your killer’s head simply can’t compare to Chaney. The man weighed himself down with a 70-pound hump for Hunchback, just one of many getups that would eventually cause him spinal injuries. His makeup for Phantom included all manner of prongs and discs and wires to give Erik that famous skull-like appearance. Contact lenses for a role led to the need for glasses off-camera. The studios hyped Chaney’s monstrous efforts — after all, he was the “Man of a Thousand Faces,” and the actor reveled in bringing these misshapen characters to life.

Sadly, his career ended all too soon: In 1929, Chaney developed pneumonia and lung cancer. He continued to work until his death the following year, and he appeared in one and only talkie, The Unholy Three , which, incidentally, is a remake of the 1925 silent film also starring Chaney. While other stars faltered when the end of the silent era meant they had to make the transition from pantomime, Chaney earned critical acclaim in the film, voicing five characters — including a young girl and a parrot.

I haven’t seen Man of a Thousand Faces, and while James Cagney seems an odd choice to portray Lon Chaney, I’m looking forward to checking it out for the first time and learning a bit more about this astounding craftsman. It’s terrible that his life was cut so tragically short — what other images would’ve haunted this young horror fan’s dreams, and would they have been as delightful as that of Jennifer Aniston running for her life from a Leprechaun with a penchant for horrible limericks? One thing’s for sure: Lon Chaney wouldn’t have been embarrassed about it. In fact, I’m sure he would have been thrilled to portray good ol’ Leppy.

sp.jpgA fan of horror movies and scary stuff, Stacie Ponder started her blog Final Girl so she’d have a platform from which she could tell everyone that, say, Friday the 13th, Part 2 rules. She leads a glamorous life, walking on the razor’s edge of danger and intrigue

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