The Hunt for London After Midnight 

What is it about lost media that captivates us? For me, it’s about the mystery. Thanks to the internet, we’re accustomed to being able to find any piece of information we want, regardless of how old or obscure it is. When we can’t find anything, we assume it’s either because the knowledge has been lost to time or it’s being purposely withheld from us — which can feel very unsettling. There’s something eerie about a film vanishing without a trace, especially when the only proof of its existence is a striking image like this of a deathly pale man with sunken eyes and rows of razor-sharp teeth bared in a shark’s grin.

London After Midnight (dir. Tod Browning, 1927) is a movie that seems to grow more infamous each year it goes unrecovered. In the horror and silent film communities, it’s considered the holy grail of lost films, and it continues to draw attention nearly a century after its release. In 2014, the only remaining poster of the film sold at an auction for nearly $500,000. It inspired generations of new filmmakers; for example, the design of the titular monster of The Babadook (dir. Jennifer Kent, 2014) was said to have been inspired by London After Midnight’s lead actor, the Man of a Thousand Faces himself, Lon Chaney. There have been references to London After Midnight made in contemporary pop culture, musical groups named after it, and an excess of merchandise featuring Chaney’s character, the ghoulish Man in the Beaver Hat. All this for a movie that hasn’t been seen by the public since 1965.

Based on the short story “The Hypnotist” by director Tod Browning, London After Midnight follows Inspector Edward Burke of Scotland Yard (Lon Chaney) as he investigates the death of wealthy Londoner Roger Balfour (Claude King). Balfour’s death is officially ruled as a suicide, but Burke is unconvinced and believes that foul play is at work. Five years later, a pale young woman in a flowing gown (Edna Tichenor) and a fanged man in a black beaver-skin hat (Lon Chaney) take up residence in Balfour’s abandoned mansion. Burke is called in once again to investigate by Balfour’s family and former neighbors, who believe the new tenants are vampires and may be the ones responsible for Balfour’s death.

The movie received a lukewarm response by film critics of the time, who found the plot to be nonsensical and convoluted. Audiences were much more favorable, however, and the film became a commercial hit. Its success prompted MGM to renew their contract with Browning; four years later in 1932, he would go on to direct Dracula with Bela Lugosi in the starring role. Browning would also revisit London After Midnight in 1952 when he remade it as a sound film, Mark of the Vampire, starring Lionel Barrymore and Lugosi. Boasting impressive star power and helmed by a director who would go on to be known as the Edgar Allan Poe of film, the two movies have their deserved spots in film history. But it’s London After Midnight that’s grown particularly infamous over the years, both for its status as a lost film and the controversy behind its release.

In 1928, one year after London After Midnight premiered in theaters, a man named Robert Williams was arrested for the murder of his girlfriend, Julia Mangan. During his trial, Williams claimed that Lon Chaney’s character from the film, the Man in the Beaver Hat, was so frightening that his mere image drove him to insanity. He went on to claim that the Man in the Beaver Hat actually physically appeared before him and forced him to kill Mangan. The jury didn’t accept his story, and Williams was eventually sentenced to spend the rest of his life in a mental hospital. Far from staining London After Midnight’s reputation, this heinous tragedy has only added to the film’s mystique, leading to speculation that the film is cursed. To add further fuel to the fire (no pun intended), the last known copy of London After Midnight was destroyed in a fire that erupted over the MGM studio backlot in 1965, destroying hundreds of film negatives and killing at least one person.

There’s no way to watch London After Midnight as it was originally shown in theaters, but you’re not completely out of luck if you still want to see it. Barring Mark of the Vampire, traces of the film live on: many production stills and the shooting script still exist. Both were used by film historian Rick Schmidlin to create a photographic restoration of the entire film, complete with title cards and a new score. This is currently the only way to watch what remains of London After Midnight and the closest approximation of the original movie we have. Regardless, film buffs and historians eagerly await the day when an original copy is unearthed — and many have spent countless hours, months, even decades in pursuit of this goal.

However, as we slip further and further away from 1927, the odds of finding a surviving copy have dwindled. Preserving film stock like the kind used by London After Midnight and countless other silent films requires specific and costly care, such as temperature-regulated storage vaults. If any prints of London After Midnight still exist, there’s a very good chance they’ve degraded past the point of no return unless they were stored in one of these controlled environments and painstakingly maintained for nearly a century.

Occasionally, rumors that a watchable version of London After Midnight pop up every now and then, sending the film and horror community into a tailspin for about a week or so until they’re debunked. The fact that people still keep falling for the hype leads me to wonder if, at this point, the lore behind this movie has eclipsed the movie itself. On paper, the history behind London After Midnight is the perfect ghost story. It has it all: intrigue, murder, and a villain whose design is the stuff of nightmares. There’s no record of the film’s existence beyond production images and the accounts of people who have long since passed away. However, what little information we do have paints a very conflicting picture of the movie’s quality.

When London After Midnight was released, critics of the time claimed that it was a downgrade from Browning’s earlier silent horror film, the intensely creepy The Cat and the Canary (1927). As usual, Chaney was praised for his versatility and peerless makeup effects, but his dual role as the Burke and the Man in the Beaver Hat was implied to hinder the film with reviews commenting on how bland Burke was as a protagonist. But what might be the most damning piece of evidence pointing to London After Midnight being a disappointing horror movie is the similar reception its remake, Mark of the Vampire, received. Like London After Midnight, it was praised for its performances and strong gothic atmosphere, but it also shared the original film’s poor writing and anticlimactic twist ending that’s still a source of contention for audiences who watch it today.

It’s human nature to want what we can’t have, and when every facet of something unobtainable is steeped in controversary, it becomes even more desirable. London After Midnight certainly has value a film, being one of Lon Chaney’s final movies before his death in 1930. Like any piece of lost media, I believe that recovering it is well worth the effort for the sake of preserving a piece of film history. Even so, I can’t help but get the feeling that people are setting themselves up for disappointment when it turns out that the real movie doesn’t match the mythical image they’ve concocted in their heads. I have a hard time believing that a film critics called “absurd” and “incoherent” could be the movie people are desperate to believe is scary enough to drive you crazy.

We’ll probably never know for certain, but that’s the reason why London After Midnight continues to captivate audiences 94 years after its release. Fear of the unknown is one of the principles of horror. When we’re forced to use our imagination to fill in the blanks for something we don’t have all the answers for, we create content with our minds that’s more frightening than any visuals a filmmaker is capable of showing us. London After Midnight may not be Lon Chaney and Tod Browning’s strongest work, but it endures as the most famous lost film of all time thanks to its mystery and the leering visage of the Man in the Beaver Hat, who continues to terrify us as much as he did in 1927.

You can watch the reconstructed version of London After Midnight here.