Let’s face it: Many of us watch horror films and instantly know when someone’s just “phoning in” their performance, much unlike Lon Chaney. We can tell when there’s a lackluster, cookie-cutter script and that a story is full of devices and plot holes. While some flawed movies can still be watchable, they are so much easier to yawn at than productions and performances obviously brimming with dedicated talent. This is why Joker is more acclaimed than Cats, but also why Erik, the “phantom” of the Paris Opera House, has stood the test of time. How could he inspire better movies today?

Why Lon Chaney’s Great

It’s not just that The Phantom of the Opera is old and therefore a classic. It’s also the undeniable scale of his performance, the dedication to his craft and how he made a relatively simple story become layered with hidden complexity. We don’t know Erik, yet we somehow know him. It’s impossible to pin down exactly what animates him, yet he retains that timeless emotional quality, that wounded sincerity.

Joan Crawford noted this sort of thing in her autobiography. After starring with him, she had this to say: “Lon Chaney’s concentration, the complete absorption he gave to his character, filled all of us with such awe we never even considered addressing him with the usual pleasantries until he became aware of and addressed us. He was armless in this picture—his arms strapped to his sides—and he learned to eat, even to hold a cigarette using his feet and toes.” Even more broadly, Ray Bradbury said that “The history of Lon Chaney is the history of unrequited loves.” Before elaborating on how this scale of talent could potentially inspire better films, let’s first assess some bumps in the road to current films.

A Little Problem with (Some) Modern Movies & Shows

An article like this will always look like pandering, or like the author’s just “fanboying” (or “fangirling”). However, there’s something to the difference between wanting to make art and merely wanting to make money. On that note, iconic director Martin Scorsese came under minor criticism for comparing Marvel’s superhero movies to a theme park (rather than cinema).

He went on to elaborate on his views, even saying he might enjoy Marvel if he were growing up today. However, he notes that modern movies are simply different: “[They are] market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption.”

With Joker, Todd Phillips used a comic book character to sneak a deeper, darker story into mainstream cinema, which is increasingly making non-ambiguous, commercial superhero films for general audiences. Like Lon Chaney,  Joaquin Phoenix was undeniably dedicated to his role. (Photo credit:  Warner Bros., Village Roadshow Pictures, BRON Studios)

While movies have always had a business angle, it’s safe to say it was never quite as corporate as it is today. In fact, the same’s true about music. Someone who grew up before the year 2000 can more easily recognize this, just as they can remember life before cellphone and social media addiction. While there is still raw talent out there today, it seems far more important for it to be salable talent. Plenty of unconventional storylines and dedicated performances are likely to be ignored, simply because they lack blockbuster earnings.

What Modern Horror Can Learn From Lon Chaney

In some ways, people should take a step back, cut down on the corporate profit angle a bit. Going back to Cats, that movie isn’t mocked simply because it wasn’t the biggest moneymaker. First and foremost, people notice the cheesy CGI. While that might even have its charm, it stands in stark contrast to the makeup work of Lon Chaney, who famously worked on his own look for Erik, The Phantom.

Not only was there no CGI back then, but there wouldn’t have been a need for it. Lon Chaney had a commanding presence, and so did the story he was ultimately wrapped up in. Quite simply, this level of dedication is what we could use a lot more of. Similarly, at least to my eye, old production stills of the old Cats musical look better than the computer stuff.

Dedication

If people are dedicated to their craft, it’s almost guaranteed to create better results. There’s also more need for a stronger aesthetic sense or visual style aside from Hollywood explosions and stunts. On top of that, people should perhaps try writing characters with more heart, at least a little more often. There could be more feeling to more movies — including even horror ones. This isn’t to say “Cheesy horror movies aren’t any good.” In fact, some of my favorite horror films are giant slabs of cheese. Similarly, I can appreciate a cheesy action flick. However, sometimes I want to watch something with far more emotional depth which actually says something, does something, apart from action sequences, or even chills.

Such movies do exist and will continue to exist, but I hate to think of talent being wasted or ignored by studios unwilling to take the necessary risks to make good movies. Maybe Joker is overhyped, but it will likely stand the test of time precisely because it’s not just about a Batman villain. Similarly, Phantom of the Opera isn’t just about some crazed opera-goer.

What are your thoughts on Lon Chaney, Joker and modern cinema? Let us know in the comments!

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Wade Wanio is an author.

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