Thursday, May 2, 2013

THE UNKNOWN (1927)

Hey, remember when I had the killer idea to review whole series and I did it for a little while and got really sick traffic?  But then I got lazy and just quit?  I'm planning to pick it up again in October (so rejoice!), but I have another time-eating idea that I might explore in the meantime.  I've been compiling to-watch lists from IMDB and have realized that there is a ton of well-regarded or obscure horror that I haven't seen.  Some folks on a forum I frequent are watching & evaluating certain examples of believable "Bests of the Year" and I thought it might be (initially) fun to do the same with all 100 years of extant horror movies.  Like a top ten for each year!  Because I'm only viewing legit contenders for the "best" of each year, I get to skip WOODCHIPPER MASSACRE and its low-achiever brethren.  Because I have the blog and I make the rules, this isn't a done deal yet, I'll have to see how it goes after the first few weeks or so.  So this will either be the start of a colossal project/waste of time or a brief run through some examples of silent horror.  TBD!  Also, because it's dumb to do top ten lists for years that only had two non-crap horror films, I probably will combine years or even go a decade at a time (with the 1910s and 1920s).  Since you were good enough to read all that boringness, here:


Which was the original title of THE UNKNOWN, which is a film about an armless knife-thrower for a gypsy circus.  At first glance, you'd think ALONZO, THE ARMLESS is a better, more descriptive title than THE UNKNOWN and maybe you're right (spoiler: you're not, I'll explain why).  


Lon Chaney plays Alonzo and (SPOILER) he isn't really armless.  He's a career criminal posing as a double amputee to evade the police.  In an incredible coincidence, he ends up at a circus that also has a hot Gypsy girl named Nanon (Joan Crawford!) who is afraid of arms and hands.  Even though this is innocent little 1927, it should be obvious that this business about arms is just a stand-in for gentlemen's hard lengths, as is evident when director Tod Browning sets up shots like this...


The gentleman above is Malabar, the circus's strongman and the third point in our love triangle.  The "unknown" of the title could reference Alonzo's arms, but it could also be taken in the Biblical sense of "know" if we're going with the arm/penis allegory.  Nanon shies away from arm contact, even though Malabar tries his best to pass out hugs, so she's as yet "unknown".  Until a breakthrough occurs!


Then Alonzo has the worst idea ever and goes beyond bitter to insane about it.  I'm not spoiling this part because you really need to just see it.  From my description, it might sound like THE UNKNOWN isn't even a horror film, more of a circusy proto-TWILIGHT, but the interesting thing about early horror is that the lines of the genre hadn't really been drawn!  Anything that horrified or frightened or disturbed fit, and THE UNKNOWN clearly attempts to do all three.  Although a movie that's close to 100 years old isn't going to engender the same reaction in the modern viewer, you'll be surprised at how transgressive a lot of this feels.  And at how awesome Joan Crawford looks in nominal clothing.


Pre-Code forever!  Tod Browning had a storied career long before he cemented his legend with DRACULA and you can really see his careful hand in a lot of the scenes here.  Even signs on the wall way in the background are rendered in assorted foreign languages, helping to sell the idea that our circus crew is traveling.  Chaney, of course, has his reputation and delivers a great performance here, as do Crawford and Norman (Malabar) Kerry.  There's very little of the exaggerated bug-eyed acting that you sometimes see in early silents—all the performances are compelling and natural, which again might show Browning's hand.  A good companion piece to Browning's FREAKS, but THE UNKNOWN stands up well on its own.  Worth watching and not just to find out why this horse is on a treadmill.


PS The hand thing has come up a lot recently, in multiple formats, so I asked my nurse friend to explain and this is her explanation: "Contrary to popular belief, large feet are not a good indicator of how large a feller's junk is...hand size, however, is. Actually finger size, but whatever. So that's the big reason why so many women and dirty books focus on that."  So there you go, my theory was correct.

RATING: 7/10 and we start the list that will change if this endeavor continues...

TOP TEN OF THE 1920s
1.  The Unknown

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