The sweetest fruit is that you are denied. And the best movies are the ones you don’t get to see. For decades only one copy of LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927) existed. Then there was a warehouse fire and the only copy was destroyed. Since then the Lon Chaney-starring, Tod Browning-directed feature has gained a mythical reputation.
All that remained of the film was a script and some on-set photographs and stills. Through those Chaney’s sunken-eyed ghoul became a part of cult film fandom. It wasn’t much but even from that little bit the legend grew. In 2002, restoration expect Rick Schmidlin took a working script and still images. From there, he was able to put together something resembling the theatrical film. While there was no movement you still had the images and the story. Since the original was a silent movie, the presence of title cards and the lack of sound effects wasn’t that different. Through these tools he was able to piece something resembling what was shown in to audiences 75 years prior and today’s audiences could, at last, “watch the movie.”
The film opened with the death of the Balfour patriarch, Roger. Professor Edward Burke came to London from Scotland Yard to investigate. While his gut told him it was foul play there was a suicide note. The case was closed as a suicide and life went on for the survivors. Years later two spectres start appearing in the abandoned house. The neighbors call Burke for help. He determines the mysterious figures are vampires–perhaps the vampirized ghost of Roger Balfour! As the monstrous figures haunt the family, secrets arise and the truth about Rogers death finally come to light.
If the story was loyal to the original production (and from what has been said by those who were able to see both “films” it was) then it wasn’t breaking new ground. Even Browning himself made supernatural thrillers before then. The story plot was vaguely predictable. Chaney’s signature special effects make-up was fantastic. But his career was filled with those characters. Had the fire never happened, LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT might have ended up a footnote in the careers of everyone involved. A good movie but certainly not a landmark. Because it was lost, and so much still remains lost, the legend has inflated its reputation.
You can see the reconstruction via YouTube. This will probably be the closest to a “movie” we’ll ever get:
Question of the night–what’s your favorite photograph that you’ve seen recently?