I’ve done a piss-poor job of getting into the Halloween mood this year. Being so busy meant I was left to feel dejected by (and envious of) wonderful blog events like Dark Iris’s 31 Days of Horror, in which she writes about an absolutely terrific set of cheesy/scary films in her erudite and always good-humored voice.

Last night was the first time I had the chance to sit down and watch a scary film — TCM’s showing of the beautiful, weird, and scarily effective The Unknown, a silent starring Lon Chaney and a lovely, round-faced (almost unrecognizable) Joan Crawford. It’s directed by the cult director Tod Browning (most famous for Freaks [1932]).

I’ve said it before: silent films have a capacity to rub up against something primal in our psyches, rendering the best of them truly transfixing. Just take Sunrise (1927) or Diary of a Lost Girl (1929). If you let yourself fall into them — don’t let yourself multi-task or watch ironically — they touch something truly terrifying in us. I’m not exactly sure how this works, but I’m willing to wager that the best directors of the 1920s had smarts about the use of light and cameras that got lost in the shuffle toward sound later on.

The Unknown is a good example. Chaney stars as Alonzo, an armless circus performer whose dexterity with his feet made him a star; when he’s not lighting up cigarettes or holding a teacup with his toes, he uses his feet to throw knives at the luscious Crawford to an appreciative public. Secretly, however, this is all a ruse: an accomplished thief with a record, he binds up his arms in a corset when in public because his hands, which have a distinct deformity, would land him in prison.

At the same time, he loves the gamine Nanon (Crawford), and she displays a distinct affection for him, too. Especially because, as she explains, she’s so tired of having men try to paw her that she has developed a powerful antipathy to men’s hands. The circus’s strongman, Malabar, appears particularly clueless in that regard; his flirtation with her always seems to be going well until he reaches forward and Nanon backs away, horrified and traumatized by all those memories of men trying to get something from her.

No wonder she’s willing to pull herself toward Alonzo. He’s perfect: he has no hands. Which is why his secret is so devastating: he can never be with her and let her know the truth.

Watch the whole thing and tell me if this isn’t fascinating — and oh, that contrast of Chaney’s and Crawford’s faces. This is what the movies are all about.

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I’m not going to recommend that anyone hunt down “Diary of a Lost Girl” (“Tagebuch einer Verlorenen”), the 1929 German silent shot by G. W. Pabst.  It’s preposterous soap — an innocent middle-class girl is raped by her father’s employee, bears a child and is kicked out of the house, enters a reformatory headed by a sadistic nun and a Lurch-like assistant who specializes in grabbing the lost girls by their necks.  She becomes a prostitute, marries a count, inherits all her father’s money after all, gives it all away to her evil stepmother … and so on; it’s like “The Perils of Pauline,” except she gets to have a teeny bit of agency in the end.  (The film is, however, available on YouTube for those of us cut off from Netflix.)  But it has Louise Brooks in it.  After stumbling across a library book full of beautiful stills of her, I knew I had to finally see one of her films.

The hair was absolutely brilliant — but everyone talks about that, so let’s focus on her eyes.  No one could use that scowl — a scowl that just hinted at a cry for help — better than Brooks.  She used heavy eyeliner to make them appear even bigger and wider than they already were; no wonder Liza Minnelli lifted a bit of this look for “Cabaret” in the 70s.  Unlike Minnelli, Brooks liked to hide her smile from us most of the time (“Diary of a Lost Girl” doesn’t give her much happiness), but when she did flash it, you see the most beautiful white, straight teeth and wide smile, none of which could be expected in the 20s, even for Hollywood.  I’m not sure whether her eyebrows were really so straight and far apart or if she plucked them to enhance her slightly helpless little-girl visage; either way, they were effective.  The fact that she keeps her smile from us so frequently makes us want her more.

She also had a knack for underplaying her roles, making her stand in sharp contrast to the other screen vamps of the 20s so effectively satirized by Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard.”  (“I am big.  It’s the pictures that got small.”)  That naturalism suited Pabst, who was part of the New Objectivity movement to alert the public to the social ills surrounding them.  But while it’s hard to take seriously Pabst’s silly script at this remove, what does come through is that Brooks was working against his social consciousness when she displayed her gradual descent into sexual excess.  The campy melodrama actually seems to enhance our enjoyment of her sexual appeal, none of which she hid.  She held nothing back when she danced; she let her male escort know perfectly well she might be available for something more.  In fact, she apparently cultivated a reputation for a stunningly open sexuality, having numerous affairs with both men and women throughout her life.

She was in Germany because she also had a tendency to burn all her bridges.  Affairs, marriages, and film contracts invariably ended when Brooks ran out on them.  But you can see why they chased her.  Even now, there’s a Louise Brooks Society that keeps a terrific blog and posts surprisingly regular updates about screenings, memorabilia for sale, and other background info about her.    

One of the best scenes in “Diary of a Lost Girl” comes in the middle of the film, when she’s taken in by a kindly madam and her houseful of prostitutes.  Here they dress her in a beautiful new dress; later, in equally hypnotic images, she dances with men and drinks a little too much champagne.  This is a small clip from it.  In the meantime, I’ll recommend that all of you with proper movie rental capability get the Pabst-made classic, “Pandora’s Box” — clips from that film show many more of the same kinds of scenes of her dancing, reclining on fainting sofas, wearing revealing dresses, and seducing the hell out of all of us.