London After Midnight (also marketed as The Hypnotist) is a silent mystery film produced by Tod Browning and Irving Talberg back in 1927. It was one of the most successful collaborative films at the time, at least financially, garnering just over $1 million (adjusted for inflation), which is considerable given its original production budget of roughly $152,000 (adjusted for inflation). Critically, it was a somewhat split reaction, where most critics did not seem to understand the execution of the plot. Its most considerable feedback was that the story seemed somewhat incoherent (noted by The New York Times), which is surprising considering that the story came from a collaborative effort between Browning and Chaney.
Browning was a former vaudeville performer, having created works such as The Wicked Darling in 1919 and the 1925 silent/1930 versions of The Unholy Three. Lon Chaney was known as "The Man of a Thousand Faces" due to his unmatched ability to create numerous characters (mostly grotesque and afflicted) and starring in films such as the 1923 Hunchback of Notre Dame and the 1925 Phantom of the Opera. Overall, while the film was financially successful, the two did admit to the story not being their most substantial work.
The plot itself is a rather interesting one, as it was based on a story also written by Browning known as The Hypnotist (which was why it was marketed as such). The story revolves around a man named Roger Balfour who is found dead in his London home. Burke, a police officer (in this story is referred to as a representative of the Scotland Yard), is sent to question everyone in the surrounding area, eventually claiming the situation to be a death by suicide. The story fast forwards to five years in the future, and Burke is called back to the case, checking out the Balfour mansion. The mansion is occupied with new tenants, who happen to be vampires, one of whom is a ghostly woman, and the other is none other than the famous beaver hat-wearing vampire (Chaney). Throughout his investigation, Burke is led to reconsider suicide as murder and eventually find the natural killer.
Although it was only relatively successful standing at the time, it was elevated to legendary status after a 1965 fire at one of MGM Studios and destroyed the last remaining copies. Why? It seems that because of Browning’s and Chaney’s individual impact on the film industry was monumental, and thus, any collaboration by them would be highly sought after. This film was no exception. Sadly, upwards of 75% to 90%of silent films have been permanently lost due to film companies recycling the film or vault fires. There was little value to keep and maintain film for most movie companies once their run was over, so the film was often recycled or sold. Fires were also frequent as film stock contained nitrate, which is highly flammable. MGM, for example, has had two notable fires causing the majority of films to be destroyed, one in 1937 and the previously mentioned one in 1965. It was a huge shame, too, as London After Midnight is shrouded with lore, on top of being Browning's and Lon's most significant collaboration.
Interestingly enough, some production stills have survived the burning, attempts being made over the years to reconstruct and remake the film from what has survived of those stills.
Despite its status as a lost film, it has no doubt left an impression on generations of filmmakers, if not the more significant film industry as a whole. For example, probably the best example of seeing Lon Chaney's character gaining a second breath of life is in the movie: The Babadook, where the monster's appearance is similar to that of the silent film monster. I have also written an article analyzing this film, "From Nearly Forgotten to New Age Icon", noting how each monster’s features, from sunken eyes to awkward stances, and how neither beast is genuinely a 'villain,' at least in a classical sense. Instead, both can be seen as more vehicles to help the main protagonist achieve their end goal or solve a more excellent mystery. I actually really enjoyed the movie, and if you want to get a deeper insight on the Babadook and how it became a modern horror icon, check out that article.
Lon Chaney's character was also referenced in the Batman Returns movie in its design of The Penguin. Fans of the film will also occasionally dress up as his character at conventions, often celebrating his contribution to film and the entire genre of horror as a whole.
Lastly is a rather morbid piece of trivia: Upon the film's release, it also was caught up in some controversy. A year after its release, a man was accused of murdering a woman in Hyde Park, London. The murderer claimed a plea of insanity, pointing to Lon's performance. That's what sparked the murder. He specified that Chaney was standing in a corner, in character, and spoke to the man in a raised manner. To no surprise, the jury did not believe the case, and a guilty verdict was handed down.
Despite the initially lukewarm reception of the film, the fires destroying much of the original movie, and the controversies surrounding the movie, it still has endured the tests of time as a pillar of horror. We see its influence in pop culture still strong amongst horror fans, film directors, and convention-goers alike.