It’s time for the 31 Days of Horror: 2014 Edition. For those of you who weren’t around for last year’s journey, the plan is to watch at least 31 horror movies I’ve never seen before and review them all. So sit back, strap in, and enjoy my journey down the rabbit hole.
It’s hard to go wrong with a silent film directed by Tod Browning and starring Lon Chaney. But because of the slam dunk potential of the Browning/Chaney team up with a scenario that is already about a fear of sexuality before you even get under its surface, The Unknown feels restrained and not as good as it could have been.
Alonzo (Chaney) is part of a novelty act in a traveling circus. Having no arms, he uses his feet to shoot a rifle and throw knives at targets placed perilously close to the smiling Nanon (Joan Crawford). While his talent is extraordinary and he is a popular performer, Alonzo is despised by Zanzi (Nick De Ruiz), the owner of the circus who is also Nanon’s father.
It turns out that Zanzi has good reason to dislike Alonzo. Not only does Alonzo have designs on the beautiful, much younger Nanon, he is also hiding the fact that he is a thief…and has arms. Alonzo uses the circus as a cover, robbing local businesses as the circus goes through town. He keeps his arms bound to his torso via a tight wrapping. Only his assistant Cojo (John George) knows the truth.
When Zanzi discovers Alonzo has arms, they have a brief struggle before Alonzo strangles the man to death. Hiding his arms again, Alonzo leaves the circus, taking Nanon with him. Perversely acting as a father figure to Nanon, while angling to win her heart, Alonzo goes to extremes in his attempts to manipulate her and eliminate Malabar (Norman Kerry), the kind-hearted strongman who loves her.
First and foremost, The Unknown is a showcase for Chaney’s athleticism. Browning includes several scenes of Chaney using his feet as easily as most people use their hands. While some of the tricks look to be faked, there are moments that are clearly Chaney contorting his body to smoke a cigarette with his toes or opening a door. These moments are a terrific reminder of the actor’s ability to not only use makeup to perform his roles, but also the uncomfortable lengths he would go to twist his body in extraordinary ways if it benefited a film. When Alonzo rubs his arms and slaps at them after they are unwrapped, it’s hard not to believe that was simply Chaney trying to encourage the return of normal circulation to his limbs.
Beyond the physical extremes Chaney displays, The Unknown works as a creepy examination of the way many men simply look at women as sexual objects to be conquered. Nanon complains that she hates the way men paw at her (which is why she likes keeping Alonzo company—he has no hands with which to grab her). Given the way that most of the men leer at her in the film, her feeling is understandable. But Browning insinuates something darker through Zanzi’s intense reaction toward Alonzo’s desire of Nanon. Acting less like a protective father and more like a jealous lover, the viewer is left to wonder just what the relationship is between the father and daughter. This uncomfortable idea is backed up by the panic Nanon exhibits whenever Malabar is tricked by Alonzo into trying to hug her. Nanon has physically experienced nothing but the worst of men and is unable to stand even an honest physical expression of affection from a man who does love her.
Until his creaky adaptation of Dracula, Browning was ahead of his time as a filmmaker. The Unknown is more sharply paced and edited than many surviving silent films of the ‘20s and is better-acted. Chaney is a solid anchor with his two-faced performance that devolves into full blown madness by the final reel. Crawford gets a surprisingly decent arc and blossoms convincingly as Nanon’s fear dissipates under Malabar’s gentle courtship.
But despite Browning’s craftsmanship and the good performances, The Unknown never evolves beyond being a good melodrama into something more memorably disconcerting like Browning’s Freaks. Alonzo’s desire for Nanon to see him as more than a father figure echoes her implied relationship with Zanzi, but Browning never really seizes on that plot thread. Instead, he settles for a film that turns out to be a better-than-average vehicle for Chaney. There’s nothing especially wrong with the movie, but the pieces on display indicate it could have been a classic had Browning followed through on the more unsettling themes bubbling under the surface.
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