By Stephanie Star Smith
April 3, 2003
Perhaps one of the most legendary "lost" films from the silent era, the last surviving copy of this horror classic from Lon Chaney, Sr and Tod Browning was destroyed in a fire in 1975. But some clever work using era-correct music and the production stills resulted in a fascinating glimpse into a piece of Hollywood history.
Rick Schmidlin, who used the same technique to recreate the missing footage from D W Griffith's Intolerance, has managed to do what seems, on the surface, the impossible: make a movie out of a series of photographs. At first, the artifice of the device overwhelms any sense of storytelling; after all, still photos do not a compelling visual experience make. But soon you are drawn into the plot, and the way in which the stills are used creates a sense of movement, until finally you are immersed in the experience and enjoying the "film" on its own merits.
And preset-day moviegoing audiences should care about a series of black-and-white photos why, exactly?
I'll be honest up front and admit that this experiment is not for everybody. One needs a good deal of patience and an even greater suspension of disbelief to get caught up in the narrative at all. However, if you're willing to make the commitment - and we are only talking about an hour of your time - you will find a certain artistry to the way in which Schmidlin uses the production stills to create the semblance of a motion picture.
And there is the historical aspect. If you've an interest in film history in general, and/or horror films in particular, London After Midnight is sort of the Holy Grail of the genre. To have even this Frankenstein's monster of the completed film is the cinephile equivalent of finding King Tut's tomb, although in this analogy, the tomb has already been looted of much of its treasure and the boy king's mummy is long gone, but still, it's a fascinating document of a legendary monster movie.
As I said, this attempt to recreate a film from production stills is not for everybody, but if you're willing to accept the experiment on its own terms, you'll be surprised at how engrossing the experience turns out to be.