The Unknown

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 9, 2015

A real mess of a Tod Browning movie. Is Lon Chaney/Alonzo the tender-hearted swain, or is he a psychopath? The fact that he’s careeningly both is implausible, both narratively and psychologically. But that fact also yields a great deal of what we might call psychoanalytical insight. We conform to expectations. We behave decourously, and yet dark desires attend at the margins, and may even reside at the core. Dreams conflate or combine these impulses in a way that can be difficult for the dreamer to reconcile, or even admit. A classic course of psychoanalysis, among other things, helps the patient unpack and understand them.

Now, did Tod Browning as he wrote this story intend either to suggest Freud, or dramatize some of the patterns that he laid out? Almost certainly not. But the deepest of patterns are echoed in our most unconscious communications, whether we will or no.  The Chaney character’s simultaneous decency and monstrosity may make for some dramatic inconsistency, but then consistency never was the most important part, maybe wasn’t even of any interest in all in these artists’ films, or in this genre either.

With all that in mind, Browning’s outlandishly sick plot comes off as a dream or a fantasy, both projection and therapy. All this erotomania and frigidity suggest as much. Or, another very viable interpretive alternative is that the whole thing is just a madhouse. Man! Like I said, a real mess of a Tod Browning movie, and none the worse for it.

So Alonzo is both protagonist and villain. This is 1927, or fairly early days in the development of this genre in film. But this major milestone, this semi or sort-of leap forward, suggests how with the horror a lot of the standard expectations are not going to apply. Alonzo’s double thumb—watch for it!—is like the abnormal brain in 1931’s Frankenstein. It’s a device that lets the film’s perpetrators off the hook. It explains everything he does, and why. But that explanation, the clarity, the rationality that it implies diminishes from the whole. Don’t worry. The genre is going to take this on very successfully …

Lon Chaney! It’s not only his physical virtuosity. (Watch his feet!). It’s his character’s mercurial emotion, and the complete dramatic technique that enables him to communicate every infinitesimal gradation. This next sounds like hyperbole. It’s not. The terrible moment when Chaney/Alonzo realizes what he has done, and how it has failed, and what it means, qualifies as one of the very greatest, most moving, most disturbing things an actor has ever done in the movies. It’s awe-inspiring, magnificent. The contrivance of it all is really quite astonishingly sadistic, even perverted. In mainstream movies (sort of), only Luis Buñuel will ever really come close. (And then he’ll go even further, won’t he?) The planned resolution of this perverted contrivance is even more sadistic! A denouement manages to prevent that threat. It doesn’t comfort especially! Going forward, in a certain kind of horror film, seemingly upbeat endings are not going to mean very much!

Tweet Review:

Saw Browing/Chaney’s #TheUnknown. LC totally convincing as vengeful psychopath, & as a Tender Heart. TB can’t/won’t decide which it’s to be.

#TheUnknown. Preposterous, implausible & confused, all of which finally dissolve before Chaney’s technical virtuosity & emotional majesty.

#TheUnknown. Preposterous, implausible, confused & unpleasant? W’ Horror Film’s anxious, implicitly anti-rational nature, these might be the whole point.