Why Lon Chaney's London After Midnight Is The Holy Grail Of Lost Cinema

You know "Dracula," Tod Browning's landmark Universal horror film, but have you seen the director's first dip into vampiric waters?

It was 1927, years before Bela Lugosi would make horror history as Count Dracula; amid the opening of the Holland Tunnel and the advent of talkies with "The Jazz Singer," Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures released "London After Midnight," also known as "The Hypnotist." The story, written by Browning, presents vampires as the prime suspects in an unsolved murder – a Londoner's death is ruled a suicide, but something's not adding up, and Lon Chaney plays the dual roles of cop and criminal as both an inspector and the jarring Man in the Beaver Hat.

If you hadn't seen the movie, you'd be forgiven; "London After Midnight" is considered a long-lost film, its last print destroyed in the MGM vault fire of 1965. The movie is both the victim of heat damage and of a time when film preservation was a low priority, leaving films to waste away in studio vaults. The nitrate-rich film stock of the time was intensely flammable, so much so that Quentin Tarantino makes a Nazi-defeating plot point of it in "Inglorious Basterds." As such, vault fires were notoriously common, and one of the most infamous was the Vault 7 storage fire at the MGM backlot in Culver City, California. An electrical short spark was all it took to ignite the cache of film stock on August 10, 1965, reducing the vault content to ash. The last known copies of "London After Midnight" and a handful of other silent films were lost to the flames, and Browning's banger ascended to a position of legend in cinema lore.

Why So Serious?

As an investigator's disguise of a fake vampire, Lon Chaney sported a shark-like set of tiny, sharpened teeth in addition to the beaver hat seen in the film. The result was iconic, with film scholar David J. Skal observing in his book 'The Monster Show" that "the primitive razor-mouth, superimposed on a human face, is a clear evocation of a Freudian concept: the devouring castrating vagina dentata." Fire or no fire, the film provided one of Lon Chaney's classic looks, one that continues to reverberate in the genre today. It's a look that critics invoked while watching Ethan Hawke's grinning Grabber terrorize kids in Scott Derrickson's thriller "The Black Phone," out at theaters in the summer of 2022. Designed by makeup FX maestro Tom Savini, the Grabber's detachable mask is a weathered gray, with horns and multiple lower halves that either grin or frown. Both are equally unpleasant and Hawke is equally unrecognizable (in a good way) in either iteration of the role. Queer horror icon The Babadook takes aesthetic cues from "London After Midnight" as well, according to "Babadook" director Jennifer Kent. 

All that's left of "London After Midnight" is a screenplay and a few stills, but that was enough for Rick Schmidlin to reconstruct about forty-five minutes of the movie on behalf of Turner Classic Movies in 2002. The effort can be found on TCM Archives' Lon Chaney Collection DVD set. Warner Brothers currently holds the rights to the movie until it advances into the public domain this year, so if someone is going to turn this cultural devastation around and unearth a print, now's the time.