I’d be lost without my hands, lost in a way that I can hardly begin to describe!
Titles By: Joseph Farnham
Directed by: Tod Browning
With this, and Freaks, Tod Browning shows a definite affinity for the circus sideshow performer. What I love about The Unknown is how nicely it contrasts with something like Freaks. Alonzo is a “freak” by movie’s end, but he’s never someone I felt pity for. Alonzo is, in every way possible, the villain of the piece. He’s a killer, he’s manipulative, and he wants to control the lives of all those around him. Mr. Browning takes a character we would normally feel sympathy for and turns him into the bad guy who we hope fails. That’s more than impressive, that’s a daring move that isn’t all that common in the world of cinema. Or, at the very least it’s hardly ever executed in as fine of fashion as in The Unknown.
I don’t want to give all the credit to Mr. Browning, though he is worthy of a lot of the praise directed towards the film. The reason I want to spread the praise wealth around is because of Lon Chaney. The face of Mr. Chaney is the glue that holds The Unknown together. He’s slimy, he’s a bad guy, and his face doesn’t want us to forget that. Even when he is looking at someone in a manner that is meant to be congenial there’s always a hint of menace behind the outward facade. I’ll readily admit that I haven’t seen enough of Mr. Chaney’s work, but I was very impressed with his performance in The Unknown. There’s one particular moment when the camera focuses on his eyes and I felt as if I were looking into the eyes of a man so vile that he was beyond description. A reaction like that is only possible because of the skill Mr. Chaney shows as an actor.
The horror aspect of The Unknown is more macabre than anything else. Mr. Browning isn’t aiming for scary, he’s aiming for an unsettled feeling in the pit of one’s stomach. There isn’t much in the way of camera trickery in The Unknown. Rather than use tricks to establish a macabre atmosphere Mr. Browning uses his actors and the general atmosphere of a 1920s circus. A man with no arms who is a circus performer is by its very nature a tad macabre. Using that as his springboard Mr. Browning shines the spotlight on his lead actor and allows his machinations to create a dark and macabre tale. What Mr. Browning brings to the table in The Unknown is a steadfast knowledge of what will creep the audience out and where his players need to be in order for the creepiness to fully set in.
Buoyed by a splendid lead performance and crisp direction from Mr. Browning The Unknown remains a horror film that should interest any fan of the genre. It’s macabre, but the story of The Unknown is also fresh in the way it plays with the emotions of its audience in relation to the lead character. I was drawn in by every element of The Unknown, and I can’t imagine many horror fans who would be turned off by Mr. Browning’s film. This is one silent horror gem that is deserving of its reputation and that deserves to be seen by as many horror buffs as possible.