There are a number of reasons why this silent horror/mystery from 1927 is of interest today. It’s thought to be the first American feature film to include a vampire character, for example, though Tod Browning’s London After Midnight is better known for being a lost picture, one of the many early cinematic works to have been carelessly destroyed at some point in the 1960s (although I suppose there’s always hope that a print left in some dingy vault will turn up eventually). So, you may be wondering how I’m planning to review a film that doesn’t apparently exist in any media any more. Well, the short answer is, I obviously can’t and I’m not going to. What I actually watched was a curio made for TCM in 2002 by restorative producer and silent film expert Rick Schmidlin. Schmidlin’s 45-minute-long version of London After Midnight uses the script of the original feature in tandem with new intertitles and a set of production stills to form as close a match to Browning’s film as possible, so I guess you could call it as a reconstruction, or even an interpretation. The writer David Thompson describes it in his book Have You Seen…? as a pioneering example of an ‘illustrated film script’, and in all honesty I can’t think of a better summation than that. It’s also a fairly interesting exercise in editing and simple shot selection, with the exagerrated poses of the actors and pans and zooms toward their expressive faces employed throughout. It looks as if some of the intricacies of the original story have been lost, somewhat understandably, and I doubt I’ll ever watch it again, but I do have admiration for Schmidlin’s work here, as he has managed to fashion something that is sensitive to the period and style of silent cinema out of next-to-nothing. I also enjoyed a few chuckles at the expense of a heavily made-up Lon Chaney Sr, who played two roles in the 1927 film, and who is caught gurning away here in a number of photos as a vampire in a beaver hat (though not always through choice, as wires were used at the time to stretch his features). As for Browning’s original…well, it was popular when it was released, but the director remade it as a talkie with Bela Lugosi in 1935. By all accounts that film, Mark Of The Vampire, is far superior to London After Midnight, though it looks like most of us will never get the chance to compare.
Directed by: Tod Browning (original film), Rick Schmidlin (reconstruction).
Written by: Waldemar Young, Joseph Farnham. Based on The Hypnotist by Tod Browning.
Starring: Lon Chaney, Sr, Marceline Day, Conrad Nagel, Henry B. Walthall, Polly Moran.
Cinematography: Merritt B. Gerstad.
Editing: Harry Reynolds, Irving Thalberg (original film), Rick Schmidlin (reconstruction).
Running Time: 65 minutes (original film), 45 minutes (reconstruction).
Year: 1927 (original film), 2002 (reconstruction).