Just read Robert Bloch’s short story "The Legacy" part of a horror anthology I recently bought. It fits the bill well enough; it’s about a film buff who leases a house once putatively owned by a famous silent-screen horror star and discovers, in said house, a make-up kit with a mirror that has retained the spirits of malignant personalities from old horror movies. It’s a creepy tale, it gets under your skin, and it’s by one of my favourite suspense/horror writers. So why can’t I shake off the feeling that the author intended it to be not so much a horror story but a tribute to a fascinating, enigmatic actor and – on a broader level – an elegy for the lost treasures from cinema’s early days?
The actor in question is the legendary Lon Chaney, known even during his own lifetime as the "Man of a Thousand Faces", an epithet that is only mildly exaggerated. Chaney, whose talents as a make-up artist still inspire awe today, is best remembered for his iconic death-head face in the 1925 Phantom of the Opera; but in hundreds of other silent movies (many of which have been lost forever) he played a mind-boggling range of characters, mainly exotic villains, not one of whom quite resembled another. (What adds mystery to the Chaney legend is that very little is known about his off-screen life. "Between pictures," he famously told prying reporters once, "there is no Lon Chaney.")
Robert Bloch watched The Phantom of the Opera as a child and was "terrified and fascinated by the face that glowered at me from the screen". It isn’t too much to speculate that this terror and fascination played no small part in Bloch’s prolific writing career, during which he produced a number of chilling stories that played off on real-life figures (Bloch wrote the novel Psycho, inspired by the true story of the grave-robbing Ed Gein, and his "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" is one of my favourite short stories).
The frightening passages in The Legacy are the ones where the protagonist looks into the make-up mirror to find, reflected back at him, the faces of the characters Lon Chaney played in his movies. But anyone who cares about the rapidly-vanishing legacy of the silent cinema will also instantly recognise in these passages the voice of a true movie-lover:
"Faces formed in the glass – contoured countenances which seemed frighteningly familiar…some Dale had seen before only in photographs – the evil Chinaman from the lost film Bits of Life, the benevolent laundryman in Shadows. Then, in rapid shifts, the vengeful mandarin of Mr Wu, the bespectacled elderly image of Wu’s father, and a final, frightening glimpse of the chinless, sunken cheeked, shrivelled face of the aged grandfather. They formed and faded, sharing their secret smiles.
Now others appeared – the two pirates, Pew and Merry, from Treasure Island, a bearded Fagin out of Oliver Twist, followed by figures looming full-length in the mirror’s depths. Here were the fake cripples of The Miracle Man, The Blackbird, Flesh and Blood. Then the real cripple of The Shock and the legless Blizzard of The Penalty. Now came a derby-hatted gangster, a French-Canadian trapper, a tough sergeant of Marines, a scarred animal trapper, and Echo, the ventriloquist of The Unholy Three…a crazed wax-museum attendant, a bearded victim of senile delusions, a deranged Russian peasant, the insane scientists of The Blind Bargain and The Monster."
Though I was once obsessed with the silent cinema and read up on it gluttonously, I hadn’t even heard of some of these films. Reading Bloch’s story made me want to revisit Chaney’s filmography on IMDB and then try to get my hands on all these movies. But I know that’ll probably never happen; some of them don’t even have any existing prints.
The great silent films in the horror/fantasy genre have an unmatched visceral effect, precisely because they are so creaky and fragile; they seem to come from another world altogether (which in a sense they have), which suits the demands of the genre perfectly. It gives them a power that no computer-generated effects can replicate. Chaney’s films fall in this category, as do the films of F W Murnau, Fritz Lang’s great Siegfried series (I remember watching with awe the hero slaying an obviously cardboard dragon) and numerous other films of the time.
But silent films are also tragically fragile. Granta editor Ian Jack wrote recently of how thousands of reels of film are slowly decomposing in forgotten archives, and of "the unequal struggle to preserve and remember". Like the unfortunate vampire exposed to sunlight in the final scenes of Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu, the great silent movies are fading.
P.S. Love this coincidence. The latest essay in the fortnightly "Ebert’s Great Movies" series is on The Phantom of the Opera. Here’s the link.