Unearthing the Greatest Vampire Movie You’ll Never Be Able to See
Tod Browning's infamous and "cursed" London After Midnight has been lost to history, but Lon Chaney Sr.'s creation of the first Hollywood vampire influences movies to this day.
“I want you to promise to keep this a secret, from everyone,” says Edward C. Burke, a mysterious professor played by mythic master of the macabre, Lon Chaney Sr. The line is a warning to a mourning daughter in the surviving screenplay for London After Midnight; it’s also part of the eeriest horror movies of the silent era. Unfortunately though, director Tod Browning’s 1927 classic has become one of the most inadvertently well-kept secrets of Hollywood, even as it remains one of the most influential works in horror movie history. If only we could see it.
While the film has been lost to time, the ghastly image of Chaney’s vampire in the film has lingered in the pop culture imagination, influencing everything from the earliest Hollywood Dracula film of 1931, which was originally supposed to star Chaney until his death in 1930, to seemingly this year’s recent Renfield reimagining at the same studio.
Nicolas Cage reportedly shaved his enamel to play the immortal vampire in Renfield, and not just the canines. My what sharp teeth he has, all the better to emulate the full set of fangs in London After Midnight. Even as it eludes the metaphysical, Browning’s 1927 chiller is the very definition of an occult film. It is lost, rumored to be cursed, and inspired at least one real-life tragedy.
The Story of a Silent Classic
Prior to directing the classics Dracula (1931) and Freaks (1932), Browning already had an exemplary portfolio in the freakishly morbid silent motion picture gallery. He began in carnivals and circuses, moving to films as a performer in 1913 and then as a director in 1915. He collaborated with Chaney for the first time four years after that on the film The Wicked Darling. Each of their collaborations expanded the scope of ghoulish characterizations. Working with scenario writer Waldemar Young, Browning came up with the first American cinematic vampire character.
The 65-minute silent horror film was originally titled “The Hypnotist,” before it was distributed as London After Midnight by MGM. Released in December 1927, it mesmerized moviegoers, already entranced by the evolving horror genre. Steeped in psychological obfuscation and misdirection, the film avoids any overt ties to the supernatural, which was the American way for horror films of the 1920s.
The story follows the investigation of the death of wealthy Londoner Roger Balfour (Claude King), officially ruled a suicide. Sir James Hamlin (Henry B. Walthall), who lives next door and is executor of the estate, says Balfour wasn’t suicidal. Professor Edward C. Burke (Chaney), a Scotland Yard inspector and hypnotist, sees foul play afoot and hypnotizes the prime suspect, Balfour’s nephew Arthur Hibbs (Conrad Nagel), into re-enacting the murder. He is ruled out as the suspect.
Five years later, Balfour’s body disappears from its tomb, and Hamlin has reason to believe the new tenants of the Balfour mansion—a pale young “Bat Girl” (Edna Tichenor) and a fanged man in a black beaver-skin hat (also Chaney)—are vampires who killed Balfour. Hamlin calls on Burke to investigate. It turns out to all be a trick to lure the true suspect out of hiding.
A Disconnect Which Drove Audiences Mad
Critics of the time found London After Midnight to be a step down from Browning’s groundbreaking atmospheric work in The Cat and the Canary (1927). They also felt it did not match his work with Chaney in The Unholy Three (1925), and their most recent collaboration, The Unknown (1927). Reviewers faulted Chaney’s secondary portrayal of the bland Professor and Scotland Yard Inspector for taking the sting out of his terrifying “Man in the Beaver Hat.”
Chaney was known as the “Man of a Thousand Faces.” His makeup techniques delivered him from routine character actor parts to iconic portrayals of grotesque humanity. As Quasimodo, the bell ringer in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and Erik, who stalked the Paris Opera House in The Phantom of the Opera (1925), his roles elicited sympathy as well as repulsion from audiences. London After Midnight was a darker departure.
Critics declared Chaney’s Burke failed to meaningfully connect with the audience. But the Man in the Beaver Hat did. Moviegoers were thrilled. London After Midnight made over a million dollars at the box office on a budget of $151,666 in its initial release. On a personal note, my grandmother was a horror aficionado, reveling in fear, and instilling the love of terror in me as a young child. There was one movie and one novel that scared her. The book was The Devil Rides Out by Dennis Wheatley. The film was London After Midnight. She caught it when she was 10 years old, and never wanted to see it again.
The mystique has grown since 1927. What could be in this film? Eight years after the silent film’s release, Browning remade it in sound as Mark of the Vampire, starring Lionel Barrymore, Bela Lugosi as Count Mora, and Carroll Borland as his magnetically etheric daughter Luna. Even with the stellar and mysterious cast, it bears no trace of the menace and exalted dementia associated with the original by those who saw it in the ‘20s.
The London After Midnight Copycat Killer
When it first hit movie theaters, London After Midnight initially attracted controversy because it included the taboo backdrop of suicide. A year after its release it would be tied to a much darker incident, one of the first cinematic copycat killers. On Oct. 23, 1928, police found a man named Robert Williams in London’s Hyde Park. He was disoriented, lying on the ground beside the body of his girlfriend, Julia Mangan. Next to him was a razor, covered in blood.
During his trial, Williams claimed Mangan had refused his offer to marry her. He claimed the last thing he remembered was hearing her whistling. Williams testified he went into a seizure and saw visions of Chaney’s Man in the Beaver Hat character commanding him to carve up a woman with a razor, going on to say the character physically appeared before him and forced him to kill Mangan. William’s ultimate defense was that Chaney’s character was so frightening, the image drove him to insanity. A hung jury could not reach a verdict.
Williams was convicted of the crime at his 1929 retrial and sentenced to death. The sentence was reduced to life in a mental hospital. This lightened verdict did not acquit London After Midnight in the eyes of the public. It added to the film’s dark mystique. Could this movie drive a man to murder, and subsequently be forced to live out his days in an asylum? Perhaps the film did indeed carry a curse, and was too dangerous to be seen by the general public.
A Lost Film Reconstructed
Many people believe London After Midnight is cursed, and left other victims in its path. At least one person was killed in the 1965 MGM studio backlot fire which destroyed the last known copy of the film.
MGM was diligent both about collecting film prints, and preserving the studio’s early motion pictures. The nitrate film used for 35mm negatives and prints prior to 1952 was highly flammable. A print of London After Midnight was inspected during a vault inventory in 1955, and stored in vault 7 on Lot 3, in Culver City. The vaults were made of concrete, and spaced apart to prevent fires from spreading but had no sprinkler systems in place. On Aug. 10, 1965, an electrical short ignited the stored and sensitive nitrate stock, destroying hundreds of negatives.
The Library of Congress estimates only 14 percent of movies from the silent era survive in their original format. London After Midnight is the holy grail of lost films. Much of this is due to the power of Forrest J. Ackerman’s magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland, which rendered a tribute to the film’s unforgettable poster on its cover and began a frenzied search.
After prints and clips were found of the 1910’s Frankenstein, 1917’s Salome, and even a Dutch-subtitled copy of the lost Chaney/Browning collaboration The Wicked Darling, rumors began to circulate that a seven-reel print of London After Midnight was discovered in Spain. There was talk of another unearthed in Cuba, and whispers of a print in the U.S., none have been confirmed. Even if a can of film is discovered, it is not a guarantee the film inside will be in good condition. Nitrate is not a long-lasting medium.
The script and title card information exists. Using stills, the original script, and a new soundtrack by Robert Israel, Turner Classic Movies released Richard Schmidlin’s reconstructed version of London After Midnight in 2002. It hasn’t dulled the desire for the full print, regardless of the consequences.
A 2002 episode of the British crime drama Whitechapel features a murder suspect who is driven insane by watching a found print of London After Midnight. Nicolas Cage shaved his teeth to bear the fangs in Renfield, something which might even bug its title character.