The Unknown (1927)

Director: Tod Browning

Another one of those films whose place in the top 500 horror list is, frankly, a bit tenuous but whatever. It’s got Lon Chaney in it and that’s never an entirely bad thing; he was in some right tosh but he was usually fine. Anyone who could make He Who Gets Slapped watchable had to be a good actor, and although he’s probably better known for his undeniable makeup artistry, part of me is actually more interested in the non-makeup films where he has to do other things like, well, act. This film is a sterling example of that. It may or may not be horror as such, but it certainly does constitute one of the most fucked-up romances ever… Chaney plays a criminal with a very particular physical distinction, i.e. two thumbs on his left hand, so he hides at a circus where he pretends to be armless (hiding them under a corset-like connivance) and becomes adept at throwing knives with his feet. (MGM were amazingly fortunate to find a double for him who not only looked enough like him that you can barely tell in some longer shots, but who actually WAS an armless circus knife-thrower. That’s the sort of detail you couldn’t make up.) Alonzo the Armless loves the circus owner’s daughter Nanon—for whom he has a rival in the form of the circus strong man Malabar—but she has a fear of men touching her (hence why she’s so comfortable around him). Alonzo decides the only way to seal the deal is to have the arms amputated for real… and complications ensue when he discovers Malabar has helped Nanon get over her hang-up about men’s hands. This is one of the most mouth-drying “oh fuck” moments in film history—also a great example of a scene that could probably only work in silent cinema, which was of course about to be swept away by certain technological innovations—and it’s a scene that really proves Chaney had acting chops beyond just makeup. This then leads to a climax that, when I first saw the film back in 2002, had me squealing like a small child; not bad for a film that was then 75 years old, and more of a reaction than a horror film actually made in 2002 would likely draw from me. Like I said, I don’t know if it’s horror as such rather than just gruesomely lurid melodrama, but it’s great whatever it is; remarkably intense for something that (in its extant form) clocks in under 50 minutes…

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