Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Johnny California: I Want My LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT!

 by JB

A few weeks ago, the famous, lost Lon Chaney “vampire film” entered the public domain. I’m only going to ask this once. Which one of you wise guys has a copy?

Every few years, rumors circulate that one of the most famous lost films, Lon Chaney’s London After Midnight, has resurfaced somewhere, usually the rumors darkly hint that the film was found under some floorboards of an outhouse somewhere in South America. Chaney fans and Silent film collectors get their hopes up, only to have them dashed weeks or months later. Remember-- James Whale’s The Old Dark House was a lost film for over thirty years... and we got that one back. Hope springs eternal in the human breast.

Oh! To have been an innocent bystander on the Metro Goldwyn Mayer lot, standing next to Vault 7 with a big bucket of water on August 10, 1965. You could have changed film history because you might have extinguished the blaze that erupted there after an electric malfunction ignited a whole bunch of nitrate film. The good news is that it could have been worse. Only 20% of silent films survive today; even after the Vault 7 fire, 68% of MGM silents survive. Still, on the fateful night we lost two Lon Chaney films, London After Midnight and A Blind Bargain. Don’t look at me; I was only three years old and could not yet 1) predict the future, 2) fly by myself, or 3) hoist any kind of bucket.
The Plot in Brief: Inspector Edward Burke of Scotland Yard (Lon Chaney) labels the death of Roger Balfour (Claude King) a suicide, much to the chagrin of his rich neighbors. After many years pass, said neighbors begin to see funny goings-on around the abandoned Balfour mansion. A strange man with sharp teeth, wearing a beaver hat and his thin, pale female companion are seen gamboling around the grounds. What gives?

Burke returns to investigate. Could Burke’s original take on Balfour’s death have been wrong? What about Balfour’s close friend James Hamlin (Henry B. Walthall)? What might he be hiding? Burke orders Balfour’s tomb to be exhumed—it is empty! Burke realizes that cracking the case will have to involve... hypnotism... hypnotism and vampires... and marrying a daughter against her father’s wishes. Yeah, something like that.

Despite this, uh... compelling plot, London After Midnight remains famous (even though it has been unavailable for over 50 years) for the indelible baddie Lon Chaney created in “The Man in the Beaver Hat.” This image has become iconic. How iconic?
This scary image has been mass-marketed to death on t-shirts, model kits, statues, and action figures. Remember the 2014 Australian gem The Babadook? According to director Jennifer Kent, the conception of the title monster was largely based on Chaney. Nine years ago, the only poster for London After Midnight known to exist was auctioned for the staggering sum of $478,000, the highest ever paid for a one-sheet movie poster to date.

Distortions Unlimited, a high-end Halloween prop shop, will sell you a life-sized Chaney figure in his London After Midnight garb for only $574.00. They are currently sold out. Maybe you can get on some sort of list for a second run?
In 2002, Turner Classic Movies hired producer Rick Schmidlin to recreate the original film, using its script, score, and production stills. It’s no substitute for the actual film, but it’s intensely interesting. You can find it here:

Last December, Daniel Titley published what would seem to be the last word on the subject, London After Midnight, The Lost Film. This wonderful book contains over 400 pages of obscure history, copious film stills, poster reproductions, pressbook clippings, historic news articles, and the entire shooting script. Needless to say, the book is highly recommended.

Will I live long enough to see this classic film rediscovered? Care to make it interesting?


  1. FASCINATING article. Im pretty sure i had an old betamax copy of this movie but i accidentally taped over it when HBO was running "The Day the Clown Cried" ALL the time in the 80s. I kidddd. I kiddddddd.

    Seriously thou...as an ardent long time collector of physical media, few things make me happier than hunting down hard-to-find or obscure titles. (my thoughts wander to the pre-web pre-youtube days when you'd find tables filled with really $$$$ bootleg vhs of obscure stuff at Comicons). So consider me on the case chief!!!

    Peace .n. Cinema Treasure Huntin


  2. The article reminded me of the fire in July 1937 at Fox Studio's storage facility in New Jersey. Most of the silent films made by Fox went up in flames that night.