Sunday, October 26, 2014

Creepfest: actor Lon Chaney unmasked
on 10/26 at Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre

Lon Chaney as Phroso the Magician in 'West of Zanzibar' (1928). Chaney's the one on the left.

With Halloween next week, the screenings are piling up like the unraked leaves in my front yard.

Last night, we had a great turnout for 'Phantom of the Opera' (1925) at the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine.

But now I'm scurrying to post advance info about today's Lon Chaney "Creepfest" double feature at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

The films are lesser-known Chaney pics but worth a look—especially at Halloween time, I think.

First up is 'The Unholy Three' (1925), followed by 'West of Zanzibar' (1928).

Both were directed by Tod Browning and have that weird circus-y vibe going. And both are quite dark and sinister: each delivers hefty servings of the Chaney/Browning themes of obsession, murder, and death.

But neither requires Chaney to don extensive face-altering make-up. So it's interesting to see the guy himself in action. (The poster at left makes Chaney look almost normal!)

True, 'The Unholy Three' has Chaney posing as a kindly old grandmother for a good part of the film. And 'West of Zanzibar' requires him to play a man paralyzed from the waist down.

But otherwise, both movies show Chaney unmasked.

So, in a season where masks are basic equipment, think of this bit of counter-programming as a tribute to the artistry of this legendary actor.

Known far and wide as "the man of 1,000 faces" for his willingness to play hideously disfigured characters, here's a bit of counter-programming that shows Chaney didn't need crazy get-ups to create characters just as memorable as Quasimodo in 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923) or Erik in 'The Phantom.'

The show starts today (Sunday, Oct. 26) at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre. More details are in the press release below!

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Chaney and his accomplices in 'The Unholy Three' (1925).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Creepfest of twisted silent horror films at Wilton Town Hall on Sunday, Oct. 26

Double feature of bizarre Lon Chaney movies to be shown on the big screen with live music

WILTON, N.H.—Get into the Halloween spirit with classic silent horror films starring legendary actor Lon Chaney!

Two movies starring Chaney, 'West of Zanzibar' (1928) and 'The Unholy Three' (1925), make up a creepy double feature on Sunday, Oct. 26 at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

The late matinee program starts at 4:30 p.m. and will feature live music by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

Admission is free; a donation of $5 per person is suggested to help defray expenses.

'West of Zanzibar' (1927) features Chaney as a magician paralyzed in a brawl with a rival for his wife's love and who then vows revenge. The film co-stars Lionel Barrymore.

In 'The Unholy Three' (1925), Chaney plays a sideshow ventriloquist who joins forces with a midget and a circus strongman to unleash a crime spree on an unsuspecting town, with unexpected consequences.

Both films were produced by MGM and directed by Tod Browning, who specialized in exploring the dark and creepy side of circus and theater life. Browning's career later culminated with his bizarre early talkie film 'Freaks' (1932), starring a cast of deformed carnival performers.

Lon Chaney is today regarded as one of the most versatile and powerful actors of early cinema, renowned for his characterizations of tortured, often grotesque and afflicted characters, and his groundbreaking artistry with makeup.

Chaney remains famous for his starring roles in such silent horror films as 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923) and 'The Phantom of the Opera' (1925). His ability to transform himself using makeup techniques he developed earned him the nickname "The Man of a Thousand Faces."

But Chaney starred in dozens of other films throughout the silent era, many of them aimed at the growing appetite among movie audiences for the strange, macabre, or downright weird.

In 'West of Zanzibar,' Chaney's magician character "Phroso" suffers an accident that paralyzes him from the waist down. Most of the film's action takes place in the primitive jungles of Africa, where Phroso, now known as "Dead Legs Flint," uses magic tricks to control a native tribe.

'The Unholy Three' requires Chaney to play a ventriloquist—an unusual role for a film without dialogue. But the plot then requires Chaney to transform himself into a kindly old grandmother for portions of the movie.

Both films continue to mesmerize audiences as odd early thrillers about crime, twisted love, obsession, and bodily mutilation. To modern viewers, the passage of time has made these unusual films seem even more strange and otherworldly.

It's an atmosphere that silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis will try to enhance in improvising live music on the spot for the screenings.

"Many of the Lon Chaney features seem to get creepier as more time goes by," said Rapsis, who is based in New Hampshire and ranks as one of the nation's leading silent film accompanists. "Today, they're a great way to celebrate Halloween and the power of silent film to transport audiences to strange and unusual places."

Both films are suitable for all family members, but the overall program may be too intense for very young children to enjoy.

Modern critics say 'West of Zanzibar' still packs a powerful cinematic punch.

"This is an absolutely brilliant—and economical—visual evocation of the relationship between sex and death, the erotic and the morbid...” wrote John Beifuss of the Memphis Commercial Appeal in 2012.

And 'The Unholy Three' continues to be recognized as among Chaney's best work.

"One of Lon Chaney's best movies and biggest hits, about a trio of sideshow 'freaks' who become criminals to get revenge on 'normal' society," wrote TV Guide.

All movies in the Town Hall Theatre's silent film series were popular when first seen by audiences in the 1920s, but are rarely screened today in a way that allows them to be seen at their best.

To revive them, organizers aim to show the films as they were intended—in top quality restored prints, on a large screen, with live music, and before a live audience.

"If you can put it all together again, these films still contain tremendous excitement," Rapsis said. "You can see why people first fell in love with the movies."

Upcoming films in the Town Hall Theatre's silent film series include:

• Sunday, Nov. 30, 2014, 4:30 p.m.: Buster Keaton in 'Seven Chances.' Finish off Thanksgiving weekend with a helping of laughter courtesy Buster Keaton. A pair of classic short comedies, then 'Seven Chances' (1925), a wild feature in which Buster has until sundown to get married or lose a fortune!

• Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014, 4:30 p.m.: Chaplin's Short Best Comedies. This Christmas, receive some laughs! Mark the 100th anniversary of Chaplin's iconic 'Little Tramp' character with a selection of his best short comedies. A great way for the whole family to cap off the holiday weekend.

• Sunday, Jan. 25, 2015, 4:30 p.m.: Silent Sci-Fi: 'Woman in the Moon.' An early sci-fi adventure epic about the first rocket ship to the moon, as imagined in 1929. Made on a grand scale; the rarely-screened final silent feature from German filmmaker Fritz Lang, director 'Metropolis.'

The Town Hall Theatre's 2014-15 season of silent film continues with a double feature of lurid and creepy Lon Chaney thrillers on Sunday, Oct. 26 at 4:30 p.m at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Live music will be provided by Jeff Rapsis. Admission is free, with a donation of $5 per person suggested to help defray expenses.

For more information, visit or call 654-3456. For more info on the music, visit

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