Monday 9 July 2007

The Monster (1925) Roland West

This one took me entirely aback. It's a silent movie that stars Lon Chaney, is called The Monster and is directed by Roland West, who made such films as The Bat and one of my favourites, The Bat Whispers. Yet somehow it doesn't appear to be an early horror movie. Sure, we open with some character causing car accidents with a mirror while dressed up like one of the Norwegian Black Metal elite. Sure, Chaney holds court over a mysterious sanitarium populated by maniacs who wouldn't have been out of place in Haxan. Sure, there are mysterious hidden panels and passages and the like. Everything is accompanied by thunder and lightning. Yet it's a comedy.

That's right, a comedy. It's made obvious by the title cards, but the inclusion of Johnny Arthur as the nominal lead in Chaney's prolonged absence is something of a giveaway too. Arthur was a professional whiner, not in the paranoid style of a sound era Woody Allen, but in the only way anyone could whine in a silent film: physically. He's therefore the personification of the gay stereotype: nervous, highly strung and very affected. He's also very scared indeed. He may be studying to be an amateur detective, but he's scared almost to peeing himself by the slightest thing.

And that's what this film is about really: Johnny Arthur getting scared at things, and in a house full of mystery there's something around every corner and behind every false door to be scared of. Either that or to demonstrate the power of Dutch courage. Adding Lon Chaney to dynamically build the atmosphere and lend some serious credence to affairs just makes it even more akin to all those Abbott and Costello movies where Bud and Lou meet some famous Universal monster or other. Given that he appears here much like an unhinged Bela Lugosi, six years before anyone even knew who Lugosi was, that makes the parallel even more valid, as well as showing Chaney's influence a little more obviously than usual.

I'm guessing influence is important here. There's really not much else, given that Chaney gets very little to do and there's almost no plot. However the sanitarium is almost a textbook for horror B movies to come. Every component part from every single one of them seems to be present here, in 1925, when it just might have been new. Knowing what was still to come in The Bat Whispers five years later, I wonder just how much Roland West contributed to the genre from a mere fourteen movies as director. The more I see, the more it seems like a heck of a lot. He's presiding over little to no substance here, but a serious amount of coolness.

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