Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Tonight: A double dose of Lon Chaney in 'The Unknown' and 'Zanzibar' in Plymouth, N.H.

Joan Crawford consoles an armless Lon Chaney in 'The Unknown' (1927).

Examples of perfect pairings:

• Wine and cheese. 

• Chocolate and peanut better. 

• 'The Unknown' (1927) and 'West of Zanzibar' (1928). 

Yes, two Tod Browning-directed thrillers that go together are films in which Lon Chaney is armless in one, and cannot use his legs in the other.

Wow! And that's what you'll get tonight at 6:30 p.m. in Plymouth, N.H. at our "Halloween Creepfest" double feature silent film program at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse. 

I'm especially excited because it's the first time I'll do music for the newly restored (and much longer) edition that was recently completed.

For years, I've play the only circulating version of 'The Unknown'—a slightly truncated version that runs less than 50 minutes. 

It's always been effective and enjoyable, but clearly some things were missing. Among other clues: MGM would never have released a feature film at that length. 

But a recent effort to scour archives for prints of 'The Unknown' uncovered enough "new" footage to boost the film's length up to 66 minutes. 

So that's a lot of unknown 'Unknown.' We'll see what it adds tonight at the Flying Monkey. (Somehow, I think director Browning would have appreciated a theater named 'The Flying Monkey.')\

Hope to see you there. More details in the press release below:

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An original poster for 'West of Zanzibar' (1928), a thriller starring Lon Chaney.

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Lon Chaney Halloween 'Creepfest' double feature at Flying Monkey on Wednesday, Oct. 18

Among Chaney's most challenging roles: In 'The Unknown,' he's without arms; in 'West of Zanzibar,' he's paralyzed from the waist down

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

Two movies starring Chaney, 'The Unknown' (1927) and 'West of Zanzibar' (1928), combine for a creepy double feature on Wednesday, Oct. 18 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H.

The program will feature live accompaniment by silent film musician Jeff Rapsis.

Admission is $10 per person.

'The Unknown' (1927) features Chaney as "Alonzo the Armless," a circus knife-thrower with a dark past who uses his feet to perform his act. The film co-stars a very young Joan Crawford.

In 'West of Zanzibar' (1929), Chaney plays a vaudeville magician who seeks revenge after becoming paralyzed from the waist down. The film co-stars Lionel Barrymore.

Both films were produced by MGM and directed by Tod Browning, who specialized in exploring the dark and creepy side of circus 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 'The Unknown,' Chaney's character "Alonzo the Armless" is indeed without both arms. This forces him to use his feet to perform tasks that range from throwing knives in his circus act to smoking a cigarette. In one scene, Chaney uses his feet to strum a guitar.

Lon Chaney and Lionel Barrymore in 'West of Zanzibar' (1928).

'West of Zanzibar' requires Chaney to play his role without using his legs. When not using a wheelchair, he uses his hands and arms to crawl across floors.

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 by 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 much for very young children to enjoy.

Modern critics say 'The Unknown' still packs a powerful cinematic punch.

The film "...revels in the seedy circus life, and creates some incredible set pieces, from Chaney's knife-throwing act to a sinister, cavernous doctor's lab,” wrote Jeffrey M. Anderson of Combustible Celluloid.

All movies in the Flying Monkey'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. They were not made to be shown in the home. 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. "By staging these screenings of features from Hollywood's early days, you can see why people first fell in love with the movies."

'The Unknown’ (1927) and 'West of Zanzibar' (1928) will be shown on Wednesday, Oct. 18 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 Main St., Plymouth, N.H.

General admission tickets are $10 at door or in advance by calling the box office at (603) 536-2551 or online at

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