It’s one thing to be a good actor, to disappear into a role and wow an audience with your portrayal of a completely different human being. But it’s another thing entirely when the role you’re playing isn’t human at all. Take Doug Jones for example. In The Shape of Water, Jones combined prosthetics with an alien way of moving to create a strange, wondrous monster. The horror genre owes a lot to actors like this, and today, we pay respects to one of the greats: Lon Chaney Jr..
Creighton Tull Chaney was born on this day, February 10th, in 1906. When he was in his late twenties, he began a career in film. Soon after beginning, he took a stage name after his father. Lon Chaney Sr. was a pioneer in monster movies in his own right, but his son’s performances are just as (if not more) memorable. In order to celebrate Lon Jr.’s birthday, we here at NOFS have compiled a list of his best performances. Some of them you may be familiar with, some of them might be new to you. Take a look below at what we’ve come up with, and let us know which is your favorite!
5. Man-Made Monster
Also known as The Atomic Monster, M.M.M. gave us Lon Chaney Jr.’s first performance in a horror movie. Chaney plays a man who miraculously survives a deadly accident due to a curious power. Dan McCormick, Chaney’s character, turns out to be superconductive to electricity. This garners the attention of a mad scientist named Paul Rigas (played by the kooky Lionel Atwill). Rigas believes McCormick’s curious biology makes him ideal for an experiment in mind-control. After kidnapping him and running excessive electric currents through his body, Rigas turns McCormick into a kind of zombie. The Man-Made Monster is completely under the control of Rigas and a kind of electricity junkie, who needs the currents to stay alive. Needless to say, things don’t go exactly how Rigas planned.
The movie’s plot was pretty close to 1936’s The Invisible Ray and had a fairly low budget. However, for what some viewed as a throw-away film, the movie gave us some great moments. Obviously there was the introduction of Chaney, but the film also created an interesting special effect. Chaney’s monster appeared to glow in the dark, which, for the time period and lack of funding, was an impressive feat.
4. The Mummy’s Tomb
As we’ll see a few times on this list, Chaney was very comfortable taking over roles after other horror greats had left them. In The Mummy’s Tomb, Chaney becomes the third Universal Horror Mummy. Before him were Tom Tyler and of course, the legendary Boris Karloff. Tomb continues the story of the undying Kharis, a Mummy bent on murdering the archeological expedition that desecrated a cursed tomb. Turhan Bey plays the Kharis devotee that brings the monster into the United States, and Dick Foran plays the central object of the Mummy’s revenge. The film’s story continues for two more sequels, and both feature Chaney as the monster.
Critics have praise Chaney’s performance as The Mummy. His large frame and stalker-ish way of walking were definitely menacing. However, the movie suffered some negative reception upon its release. And though Chaney gave a great performance, he was supposed to have not enjoyed the role. That’s understandable, considering it took almost eight hours to apply the bandages that made up The Mummy’s image. Still, the film is an enjoyable watch, and the mythos of the Mummy’s curse is spooky and endearing. As spooky and endearing as a non-Brendan-Fraser Mummy can be, of course.
3. The Ghost of Frankenstein
Now we have Chaney taking over directly for Boris Karloff. Karloff’s stint as Frankenstein’s Monster ended after Son of Frankenstein, his third portrayal of the monster, but the studio still wanted to make another Frankenstein film. So they turned to Chaney. Chaney’s monster is different in that it seems to have given up its human desires. Whereas Karloff’s monster wanted its own identity and then a companion, Chaney’s character wants to rid itself of its monster-ness entirely, seeking a better brain for its body. The film also changes up the role for the character of Ygor. Usually a pawn in a mad scientist’s plan, this Ygor (played by Bela Lugosi) is a sinister manipulator and villain in his own right. Lugosi’s Ygor and Chaney’s Monster make for quite the pair onscreen. If anyone could rival Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman, it’s these two.
This film is interesting in that it marks the last solo Frankenstein movie for Universal Pictures. After this, the monster would only appear in movies alongside other Universal classics. It should also be noted that The Ghost of Frankenstein‘s musical score impressed many critics upon its release, being nominated for one of the spots in AFI’s 100 Years of Film Scores. Take that, The English Patient.
2. Son of Dracula
If you’re a Dracula fan, you’ve probably heard the name Alucard a couple of times. It comes up in Castlevania and Hellsing, The Batman and Anno Dracula. But the first usage of Dracula’s backwards name is in Lon Chaney Jr.’s Son of Dracula. The third film in Universal’s Dracula trilogy, S.O.D. features the infamous Count’s “relative” attempting to establish power in the United States. Soon after the titular character arrives in New Orleans, people start dying in unusual ways, and it’s not long before the townsfolk figure out exactly where the weirdness is coming from.
Son of Dracula does a great job inverting the usual Dracula story format. Instead of a vampire invasion being fended off by a couple of plucky do-gooders, S.O.D. actually follows characters that submit to the allure of the vampire. Playing foil to Chaney is Louise Allbritton, or Katherine Caldwell in the film. Far from being just another beautiful victim, Katherine’s character actually embraces the vampiric curse. This leads to a struggle between two vampires, making the conflict of the film not just good versus evil, but a damned contest of power. Watching Chaney bounce off of Allbritton makes this movie well worth a watch. And though the twist at the end is the teensiest bit predictable, it’s still rewarding, and makes for a win for both Chaney’s career and the Universal Dracula franchise.
1. The Wolf Man
We’ve saved the best, and most important, for last. Lon Chaney Jr. made significant strides in horror movies, but none more lasting than 1941’s The Wolf Man. It’s the story of an unbeliever violently forced into a realm of death and superstition. The story of ordinary people dealing with a loved one changing into something different and unrecognizable. It’s the scariest horror story of them all — that the monster isn’t outside, but within us.
The Wolf Man is the turning point in Werewolf lore. Think the full moon transformation is a creation of folklore? Think again. It’s a creation of the screenwriter of this film. And silver, though long thought to hold magic powers, becomes a Werewolf’s Kryptonite in this movie. This movie is to Werewolves what the novel Dracula is to vampires.
Chaney’s performance as The Werewolf matches the importance this film holds for horror history. As the human Lawrence Talbot, Chaney plays an infinitely complex range of personality traits. At times, he’s a charmer, at other times, he’s a nervous wreck. But not once are any of his actions overplayed, even for our modern standard of acting. And when he turns into the wolf, watch out. His eyes bulge and his frame slouches, he becomes utterly unrecognizable in both stature and performance. No other actor has ever come close to portraying Chaney’s werewolf, and probably no actor has loved it as much as he. Chaney would frequently call this performance his baby, and for bearing that baby, we owe him. Had Chaney not put so much of his love into this role, the horror genre would be definitely different, and probably lesser, than it is now.
So that’s our tribute to one of the best, but tell us, what’s your favorite Lon Chaney Jr. performance? Is it on this list or have we left it out? Join our Facebook page to list your favorite, or give us a shout-out and a follow on Twitter. We don’t bite…usually.
For more black and white horror love, check out this list of some of the best classics inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. If that bit about Frankenstein floated your proverbial boat, check out our celebration of its 200th anniversary. We’ve got plenty of classic horror on Nightmare on Film Street, so be sure to stay tuned.