Is this a horror film? THE MAN WHO LAUGHS is an adaptation of semi-forgotten Victor Hugo work and kneads the monstrosity/love themes of Hunchback of Notre Dame with the social commentary/constant crying of Les Mis. A movie about disfigurement for moms and daughters to enjoy together! But, listen, fuck Gypsies. In the 17th century, they kidnap kids and slash their faces into permanent grins, then sell them as clowns and sideshow attractions. One such kid is Gwynplaine, son of a rebel who's offended the king. Said king sleeps in history's awesomest bedroom, complete with creepy statues that serve as secret forts for insidious jesters.
All that covers perhaps the first five minutes of this film. It's totally Victor Hugo in that it has a sweeping epic plot and dense characterization. The homeless and deformed Gwynplaine finds a baby in its dead mother's arms. The two urchins find relief in the hovel of Ursus the Philosopher, who eventually brings smiling Gwynplaine and blind beauty Dea into show business, such as it was.
The dick king dies and is replaced by Queen Anne, who forces people to attend exceedingly boring chamber music concerts. One of said people is the duchess Josiana, who ducks out of concert duty so she can parade around naked and attend street fairs. She sees one of Gwynplaine's performances and summons him to her presence, stimulated by...what? Inclination toward the perverse? Pity?
Mostly, I think it's because she's a proto-hipster rich kid, who tries all kinds of things to try to make herself less of a boring spoiled rich kid. If she lived in 2013, she would be a Wiccan with a Doctor Who shirt and gauged ears and a feminist Tumblr, but, being stuck in 1690, she has to settle for sideshow freaks and a pet monkey.
WAAAAH I WANNA BE A SPECIAL SNOWFLAKE TOO! My dislike of Josiana is fired by my extreme love of the Gwyneplaine/Dea love affair. I have (almost) never cried about a movie, but when Dea says, "God closed my eyes so I could see the real Gwyneplaine", my allergies suddenly struck hard.
Lon Chaney was originally going to get the Gwyneplaine role, but contractual mischance lead to Conrad Veidt assuming the part. What a stroke of luck for us, movie friends! Veidt is consistently incredible here, delivering a very nuanced and emotional performance despite the omnipresent rictus grin. Fun fact: Veidt's appearance here as the slit-mouthed man inspired Bob Kane to develop the Joker character for Batman, who would eventually develop into Heath Ledger's slit-mouthed Joker for grimnoir film The Dark Knight. Circles upon Nietzschean circles. Mary Philbin is also present as Dea and has much more to do than she did in PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Matter of fact, the entire cast is pretty terrific!
The filmmaking on a technical level is impressive, too, lots of interesting shots (THAT WOODEN FERRIS WHEEL SHOT WTFOMGZ) and crisp editing. A way better outing for director Paul Leni than the middling WAXWORKS! Plus, MAN was kind of a transitional silent film in that it did have "sound" (sound effects like knocking and group murmuring), but no individual spoken dialogue. So that's interesting as well...
So is it a horror film? There's no killing, no monster attacks, and basically the only thing that plants this in horror territory is the presence of deformity. But is HUNCHBACK a horror film? Is FREAKS? Is simple physical oddity enough to qualify a work? I thought briefly about all this, but decided that the dark tone, child-carving Gypsies, and facial grotesques were enough to merit inclusion. Plus it's a very good-to-great film and I wanted some shifting to happen at the top of the list for once!
TOP TEN OF THE 1920S:
1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
2. The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
3. The Man Who Laughs (1928)
4. The Unknown (1927)
5. Maciste in Hell/Maciste all'Inferno (1925)
6. The Wind (1928)
7. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
8. A Page of Madness (1926)
9. The Cat and the Canary (1927)
10. Genuine: The Tale of a Vampire (1920)