Wednesday 10 October 2018

100 Essential Films That Deserve More Attention - 17. The Unknown

People embrace the enchanting glow of the big screen for all manner of reasons; to journey to faraway places they could only ever imagine, to experience the escapism of a captivating story, or maybe to indulge in an obsession with the world of cinema. For me, all three of these reasons apply - and many more - but first and foremost is the satisfaction of recommending obscure films to other like-minded individuals who adopt them as their new favourites.

With over 100 years worth of films to choose from, and many of these now available at the click of a button, it can be extremely difficult to narrow your choices down to pick a film to watch. Although cinema has been around for over four times longer than my life on this earth, I have spent what some may consider an unhealthy amount of these years delving into the history of films to discover some of the best hidden gems out there.

This series of articles aims to highlight the overlooked masterpieces that I have unearthed whilst exploring the forgotten recesses of cinema. Take a gamble on any one of these films and I guarantee that you will be eagerly awaiting all future instalments in this series. You may well have heard of a number of these films; my aim isn't merely to shine a spotlight on the most obscure films out there, but to share my enjoyment of those films which don't have the cult following I believe they deserve.

The Unknown
Director - Tod Browning
Country - USA
Year - 1927
Runtime - 63 Minutes

Tod Browning is a renowned director, actor and screenwriter from the latter days of silent cinema, most famous for his controversial classic Freaks and his adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Freaks is a provocative expose on the inherent evil of human nature that was banned for years after its initial release and cast a shadow over the remaining years of Browning's career. It explores the seedy underbelly of a circus and its side show performers, and a film like it could not be made today.

Many of Browning's films explored the darker side of the circus; his curiosity in the lives of those who were shunned or outcast from society for their appearances showcased a world hitherto unseen by most of the general public. These pictures have added resonance for today's audience, providing us with a glimpse into an exploitative existence that is thankfully no longer common place. The Unknown does not traverse this path as vigorously as Freaks but it is clearly a foreshadowing of where Browning was headed in terms of direction and storytelling.

Whilst it is revered by those who have seen it, The Unknown is not noted as a landmark in the annals of horror history and is regularly overlooked in favour of Dracula and Freaks. Its unsettling story line and macabre tale of unrequited love makes for a compelling viewing experience that is far more chilling than Browning's Dracula, although it doesn't quite match the twisted audacity of Freaks.

Time has been unkind to a lot of early horror; what was once scary or shocking can eventually appear tired and stale, even if it was groundbreaking for its era, and this can detract from the overall impression of the film. The Unknown has avoided suffering from this fate and remains essential viewing, perhaps in part due to its central conceit - an impressive sleight of hand that is inventive and fascinating. Its story lies firmly in the shocking camp as opposed to being scary, although there is no doubt that this sadistic tale retains the power to creep under the audience's skin.

The story centres around Alonso (Lon Chaney), an armless knife thrower who uses his legs to perform his spellbinding act. Alonso takes refuge in the circus when on the run from the law, and here he falls for the circus owner's daughter, Nanon (Joan Crawford), and competes for her affections with Malabar the Mighty (Norman Kerry), the circuses very own strong man.

The circus owner is perturbed by Alonso's approaches towards his daughter and lashes out at the helpless knife thrower, causing a rift between the two that leads to more violence and bloodshed. Once her father is out of the picture, Alonso takes action to secure his place in Nanon's heart. Aware that she despises being touched by men, Alonso encourages Malabar to pursue her affection, content with the knowledge that Nanon will continue to recoil from his touch. Thus begins a volatile and disturbing love triangle that is the driving force behind a drastic and life-altering decision.

Chaney's performance is mesmerising considering the physical limitations imposed upon him by the role. It may be unsurprising to learn that he is referred to as the man behind a thousand faces due to the chameleon like transformations he would apply to each of his characters, particularly those he portrayed in the horror genre. His pairing with director Browning was a successful collaboration that gave rise to many fascinating characters, and The Unknown is undoubtedly one of their crowning achievements. Crawford herself said that it was Chaney's intense concentration and dedication to his craft in The Unknown that inspired her to become a better actress.

Sadly, parts of the film are feared missing forever. Scenes depicting Alonso's criminal escapades towards the start of the story have gone astray from the version available today. Fortunately, this does not detract from the film's impact as it is only a minor subplot, although it does leave you wondering what other memorable scenes Browning and Chaney had created whilst working on The Unknown. Many films from the silent era are now lost forever, so we should be thankful that The Unknown is available in its current guise, even if it is partly incomplete.

As you may come to expect from a Tod Browning film, the culmination of this love triangle is not a happy ending, with a devilish and tragic denouement that impressively retains its power to shock almost a hundred years after its creation. Silent cinema is somewhat of a niche interest to modern audiences but with stories as captivating and thrilling as The Unknown it will inevitably continue to attract and reward any curious film-fans who are willing to step back into time and trust in the hands of a true horror auteur.

If you take the time to watch The Unknown then it would be awesome if you could also take the time to let me know what you thought of it, either by commenting below or tweeting me @filmbantha. Thanks, and enjoy!

For previous instalments in the series click here

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