Genre Pictures I

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West of Zanzibar

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 29, 2015

This is the second last of Lon Chaney and Tod Browning’s 10 film collaborations, which were spaced out between 1919 and 1929. They’re a wide ranging set of titles, but it seems people mostly remember the films for their fundamental contribution to the evolution of the horror genre. That’s right/true/very important. But it’s not as tidy as all that. Chaney was the screen’s first Hunchback of Notre Dame (but is that exactly a horror film?), and he was the first Phantom of the Opera, and he did play a vampire in the lost Browning film, London After Midnight. More specifically, I guess, he played a guy who disguised himself as a vampire in that film. Which makes it something of a faux horror film.

And The Unholy Three? Definitely doesn’t count. All this untidiness probably comes from Chaney’s famous facility with devising and applying make-up effects, and for the contortions that he put himself through in so many of his performances. Deformity! Which seems to be equal to horror. Which, in addition to being a key concept informing the classical horror films that came mostly out of Universal Studios in the first decade of sound—the monstrous = looking really different from normal people—definitely puts Chaney in this ballpark. Still, things aren’t exactly clear here.

If you grapple with a disability—or more pointedly, if “grapple” isn’t remotely the right word for a thing/set of things that you’ve always known, that you can navigate, and that do not remotely define you as a person, then you won’t be too happy about that old way of looking at things. On the other hand, the fact that times have changed doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t look at artifacts from past times on their own terms. In other words, you don’t get to ignore Birth of a Nation, or pretend that there aren’t true and real things in it.

Back to Chaney then, and to this film. We should still ask the question. Is West of Zanzibar a horror movie? Chaney does play a paralytic, and he does so with his customary authority and resourcefulness. Also, he’s a cuckold, so that’s gotta be unpleasant. And, in the same way that modern scholars have decided that Robert Schumann was almost certainly bipolar, his character seems to be something of a sociopath! Which brings up something interesting.

You know literature’s limited omniscient third person narrator? Who knows absolutely everything about just one person? Well, though you have to allow for the fact that books and films are way different, that’s sort of what’s going on in W. o’ Z. This vengeance mad more-or-less protagonist seems to have insinuated himself into and utterly infused this crazy plot, and all of the variously afflicted characters that inhabit it. To give a sense of how all this is operating, and its implications for the viewer and for movies generally, let me refer you to our discussion about Chaney/Browning’s The Unknown (, a film that is also, frankly, plain barking.

Is West of Zanzibar a horror movie? It certainly plays like a nightmare, compounded, full of bile and malice, and much of that seemingly directed at the poor, flinching audience members. Plays like a nightmare, and might well be experienced as one besides. Yikes! However, genre aside, you’ve got the great Lon Chaney here. Probably worth a look.