The Man Who Laughs (1926)
Not as creepy as he could have been, given that other versions have him with his lips shorn right off.
Genre: Silent Drama Horror
Starring: Conrad Veidt (Storm Over Asia; Casablanca), Mary Philbin (The Phantom Of The Opera)
Directed By: Paul Leni (Waxworks; The Cat And The Canary)
Overview: When a Lord betrays the Queen, his son is kidnapped and given to Gypsies who carve his face into a permanent grin. Years later, he is known as The Man Who Laughs, the traveling side-show clown.
Acting: The characters are quite diverse, from the malicious Jester / Advisor to the Duchess, from Dea the blind girl to the side-show manager. Everyone is unique, distinct and aggressively melodramatic. This style of acting would never hold up in the present day, but since the Silent Era is all about the pantomime, this is more 'familiar' than 'over the top'. If this is your first Silent film, you'll think it a tad ridiculous.
Cinematography: The creepiest thing about this film that borders on Horror is the contorted face of The Man Who Laughs, Gwynplaine the Clown. After all, that is the point and as for those mood setting moments like the snowstorm, the Queen's orchestra scene and the dramatic conclusion, they were very professional but I didn't find anything bold or particularly worthy of remembering.
Script: Victor Hugo. Given that this comes from his original book, it's pretty good. Usually, I've noticed, films that have classic novels as their source are always very rich when it comes to script. Unfortunately, the limitations of the Silents make for less detail when it comes to characters or depth of emotion and sadly, this film suffers greatly for that.
Plot: What a premise! Heir to a fortune, sold to Gypsies, turned into a freak. Yet, years later, this man is the most successful clown in the land, even drawing the Duchess' attention and once again having the opportunity to rejoin his destined caste. You know, I bet this book was really fat and deep and cool, but the scenes that they choose to focus on just didn't translate well to the Silent screen. I mean it's Victor Hugo. It's literature...And, literature uses lots and lots of words to explain things, that's what makes it good.
Mood: Knowing what I do about this story, 'haunting', 'bleak', 'oppressive' are just some of the words that one should be left with. Yes, there is a glimmer of hope and throughout, our hero seeks to find that light that is acceptance. But honestly when you have a freakish face like that and you're surrounded by enemies plotting your entire existence before you even have a chance to hit adolescence, you would tend to think that an audience's heartstrings would be pulled just a little bit more. Clearly there was something missing and what should have been right up my alley ended up being just a little too boring.
"Dude! This chick totally has a clown fetish, you should go honk her horn, if you know what I'm sayin'!"
Aftertaste: The first I heard mention of this story was in the pages of an issue of Heavy Metal magazine, back when it wasn't filled with porn. It had a vividly detailed introduction where Gwynplaine, his lips permanently carved and pulled back, revealing his terrifying jaw, comes across a baby in the arms of her dead, frozen mother during a snow storm. I thought that if this film was half as good as those haunting images, then this would be incredible.
It only made me mourn the direction that Heavy Metal magazine took.