Director: Wallace Worsley
Cast: Lon Chaney Patsy Ruth Miller Norman Kerry Kate Lester
Length: 110 min
Label: Flicker Alley
Release Date: March 18, 2014
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Audio: Music: TBA
Subtitles: English Intertitles
- Audio commentary with Lon Chaney scholar and professional make-up artist Michael Blake
- Behind-the-scenes footage with Lon Chaney out of makeup on the Cathedral set (1:40)
- Alas and Alack (short one-reel film from 1939 in which Chaney plays a hunchback) (13:17)
- Dynamic HD photo gallery with over 50 original production and publicity stills
- Essay by Michael Blake
Film historians once widely called Hollywood “the dream factory.” The characterization seems apt with respect to the profound impact Hollywood has had on cinema throughout the world from the start of the 20th century. Although such valorizations have faded from film scholarship, one consideration remains puzzling. If cinema is the medium of man’s wildest dreams, why cannot it also be the repository of his worst nightmares? To this end, the horror genre traversed through mediums, from literature to theater until eventually making its way into early cinema. Horror is thus inseparable from cinema the same way nightmares are inseparable from the human dreamscape. Sadly, many of the early silent film classics have been forgotten or overshadowed by remakes that where done when sound became tethered to the medium. Thankfully, some of these are being resurrected, thanks to independent studios like Flicker Alley.
The man of a thousand faces is back in Flicker Alley’s new Blue-Ray release of Lon Chaney’s 1923 film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Le Bossu de Notre-Dame). This newly restored silent film version of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel is a necessity for both Lon Chaney fans and cinaphiles interested in films that presaged classical Hollywood’s genre horror films. At the time, this film was Universal’s crowning achievement. After making over three million dollars at the box office, it remains their most successful silent film. Known for its lavish sets and mannerist style, the The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s Gothic backdrop makes 15th century France come to life in a very unique way. In the vacuum of today’s CGI saturated cinema landscape, the film serves as a reminder of cinema’s theatrical roots.1923 still represents a largely forgotten time in film history: a time when the aesthetics of filmmaking were not so constrained by effects or performative utterances, but by the emotionality of a cinematic experience.
In Wallace Worsley’s adaptation of the classic French novel, Chaney’s Quasimodo captures some of the magic of this era. After constant taunting by townspeople, Quasimodo eventually lashes out at the people of Notre Dame. Pushed to the edge, a beautiful and woeful gypsy girl named Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller) saves him. Out of this pity, a friendship is born. Sadly, it is short-lived as tragedy strikes soon after. However, in the midst of so much chaos and destruction, the real monstrosity is the viciousness of humanity.
As John Carpenter once asserted during an interview, there are two types of horror: One where the evil monster is “out there” somewhere for those to fear and shun, and the other where “…the evil is here… It’s in the human heart.” To paraphrase Carpenter further, this is clearly the harder story to tell. It remains difficult to tell in cinema even with the addition of sound because Hollywood movies are designed for mass appeal. This is perhaps why critics of the horror genre chide it so much. Gore porn aside, anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960) or Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) is aware of the rich potential for polysemy within this so often derided genre of ours.
Flicker Alley’s press release states the following:
This edition is mastered from a multi-tinted 16mm print struck in 1926 from the original camera negative. (The film apparently does not survive in 35mm). Visible wear in the source material is diminished with a moderate amount of digital restoration. It is pictorially much better than earlier video editions and represents the best condition in which this landmark film survives today.
The experience of watching this 1080p presentation is very much like stepping back in time. The print suffers from all manor of age-related damage, but it is eminently watchable, and such considerations should not deter any serious cinefiles from witnessing Chaney in this role. The important thing is that whatever restoration was done is entirely unnoticeable and presents the original film elements in a totally natural and organic way.
For this release, a new symphonic score arranged by Donald Hunsberger was recorded in the Czech Republic by full orchestra conducted by Robert Israel. It is a superb score, bringing out the full grandeur and color of the large-scale Hollywood production. It also sounds somehow “of the period,” which minimizes the jolt one usually feels when watching a silent film accompanied by a modern score. The sound is full and vivid.
The Blue-Ray also includes several must-see special features for any avid collector. These include an exclusive essay and audio commentary track by professional make-up artist and Chaney biographer Michael Blake, an HD photo gallery complete with production and publicity stills, rare behind the scene’s footage of Lon Chaney on set, out of make-up, and a short film entitled Alas and Alack (1939) where Chaney reprised his role as a hunch-back.
It is easy to see how this role was able to elevate Chaney’s status in Hollywood. Chaney’s tormented bell-ringing hunchback manages to be as grotesque as he is endearing. His performance remains astonishing when one considers his ability to reveal so much humanity with dense make-up and in a visual medium without sound. The film led to one of Chaney’s most memorable roles in 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera, as well as to him becoming a fixture in early horror films. We must thank Flicker Alley and other independent studios for restoring and releasing classic titles such as this, at a time when the major studios are focusing mostly on blockbusters. Let’s all support them by buying their product, thus promoting greater diversity in the BD marketplace!