Archive for Lon Chaney

The Monday Intertitle: Scream, Blakulla, Scream!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on November 4, 2013 by dcairns


Amused to discover, at an Edinburgh Filmhouse screening of Benjamin Christensen’s nutty HAXAN (WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES) that in Swedish, the Brocken, the place where witches gather for their midnight sabbats, is known as “Blakulla.”


Other aspects of the film are amusing too, deliberately so — Christensen’s sardonic wit emerges in the strangest places, but most often to pour scorn on the absurdities of the holy witch-hunters’ beliefs and actions (it’s a seriously anti-clerical film!). Interesting to hear the audience’s laughter dry up as the realistic horror of the witch trials emerges to swamp the surreal-mythological-grotesque elements of the cavorting demons and sorcerers.

There’s so much in this film! It was strange to have seen the Chaney HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME the previous night (more on this later) and thus to have encountered to silent films in two nights featuring darting tongues, church stabbings, and molten lead.


Fiona and I were both very impressed with the demonic makeup, even when it’s deliberately absurd. One reason was perhaps having just seen HUNCHBACK, where Chaney’s body make-up is so peculiar and over-the-top — Quasimodo has an actual MANE of body hair around his neck, presumably to conceal the join between the actor’s putty-covered face and his nude-effect upper body costume — a wave of discomfort seemed to sweep across the Usher Hall as the feeling that what we were looking at was no longer in any way good enough settled over us like a pall. “Well, I guess almost nobody had ever done body makeup before,” I assured myself. But one year earlier, here’s Christensen doing it with scores of supernatural characters, all of whom look completely convincing within the heightened reality of the movie.

No information seems to be available about who designed or executed the remarkable makeup and costuming for the creatures, or who animated the brief stop-motion sequences, including a scary bit when a tiny demon is glimpsed through a disintegrating door. He’s coming for you! Who were the Swedish animators at this time?

It’s interesting and suggestive that Christensen’s SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN (still disgracefully unavailable in any decent form) also features some disturbing/goody makeups. He’s like the Lucio Fulci of Sweden — able to conjure disturbing deformities at will.

Oh, the striking musical score at our screening was performed by Verity Susman. Perhaps I could have done without the recognizable snatches of English-language speech used as samples. Spoken words, or decipherable ones, seem to add a critical/intellectual commentary onto the film. This is sort of OK for music to do, but only sort of. In a sense, the score was engaging in a dialogue with the film… interesting.  If I can formulate any objection it’s merely that Christensen’s film is already so rich and open to interpretation that to include a kind of critique in the soundtrack presupposes that one has fully processed everything he’s on about. There was a slight sense in Susman’s program notes that she intended to add a layer of modern sophistication. I actually think the film is more sophisticated than anything that’s been said about it.

But the soundtrack was beautiful and disturbing in its own right and it didn’t stop me engaging with the movie, so no harm was done.


I feel I ought to start promoting the annual Shadowplay blogathon — The Late Show: The Late Movies Blogathon. So here is a short, tantalizing mention.

Dirty Chaney

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on October 13, 2013 by dcairns


My Lon Chaney viewing resulted in a screening of his 1928 proto-DIRTY HARRY tough cop flick WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS, which resulted in a Chiseler piece, appropriately enough as the Pordenone Silent Film Festival comes to an end. Here’s a lovely review of NATAN by Silent London, who unlike your correspondent has been tirelessly reviewing her entire day’s viewing as soon as she gets back to her hotel each night. Instead, I’m going to have a heap of writing to do when I finally get back.

Holy ****!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 9, 2013 by dcairns


We loved HOLY MOTORS, now that we finally caught up with it. I have very little history with M. Carax and will now need to catch up with those I’ve missed. Thankfully, we HAD seen TOKYO! so we’d met M. Merde, which may not help understand anything about his appearance in this film but does allow one to greet him as an old friend. A terrifying old friend who eats flowers and has a dog’s erection.


Basically, in this film Carax’ main man Denis Lavant drives around in a stretch limo (a Fever Dream Double Feature with Mr. Cronenberg’s COSMOPOLIS is a must!) and assumes various disguises/characterisations. He has a dressing room mirror and a shitload of wigs and noses and stuff in the back. Oh, and Edith Scob from EYES WITHOUT A FACE is his driver. When Lavant dons these costumes he enters storylines which have the appearance of complete reality — he can even die, authentically, in these mini-films (HM is kind of a compendium film but without actual “stories” as such) but always returns to life and his strange “job”.

Some flickering half-light is shed on this by a tense meeting with Michel Piccoli, seemingly an employer, who worries if Lavant’s character fully believes in his work anymore. Lavant admits that things have gotten harder since the cameras became miniaturized to the point of invisibility. So these are films he’s appearing in, and thus the whole thing can be seen as a metaphor for cinema, and for Carax and Lavant’s parallel careers — the explicit references to past Carax movies fit neatly into this context.


This may also shed some light on the funny and beautiful coda when the limo is retired to a parking garage with dozens of similarly Tex-Avery-elongated counterparts. And the cars have a conversation, their headlamps flickering as they speak. It’s the kind of conversation that occurs in dormitories when a few annoying people aren’t quite ready to sleep. Carax himself is one of the automobile voices.

How this ties in to the main film isn’t exactly clear (nor are Lavant’s domestic arrangements, revealed in his last scene, but they made Fiona howl with astonished laughter) but it helps to realize that Lavant seems to be riffing on the deleted first scene of SUNSET BLVD. Billy Wilder deleted this because audiences laughed as William Holden’s corpse was fitted with a toe-tag, little realizing they were chortling at their own fate, some of them. Deleted along with that moment was a conversation between corpses in the morgue, their sheeted forms lighting up as they speak, echoed the flashing lights of Carax’s serried limos (those blinking lights also remind me of Daleks).

SUNSET BLVD, of course, is also a movie about movies, with an elegiac tone comparable, in a way, to Carax’s.

Paul Duane suggests that Lavant is channeling Lon Chaney in this movie, which I guess is what prompted us to finally watch it. It’s true — the actor creating his own make-ups… Merde’s milky eye echoes a specific effect (achieved with egg skin) produced by Chaney in THE ROAD TO MANDALAY… there’s even a random ape scene, which could be seen as a Tod Browning homage.


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