The trick to enjoying this 1925 film is not to view it as a Lon Chaney film in which he’s rather wasted, but as a Johnny Arthur comedy-horror film in which Lon plays a supporting role. If you don’t go into this expecting it to be Lon’s film, you won’t be that disappointed.
Johnny Arthur plays Johnny Goodlittle, a young aspiring detective who reminded me of Buster Keaton’s character in Sherlock, Jr. (1924). He gets his big chance to solve a case and prove himself when wealthy farmer John Bowman goes mysteriously missing after an auto accident. Johnny and the town sheik, Amos Rugg, join the search party. Not only are Johnny and Amos already co-workers and now on the same search team, but they’re also both competing for the hand of Betty Watson, their boss’s daughter.
Amos takes Betty for a drive one night, to try to sway her opinion of him, and gets into his own auto accident. They’re kidnapped and taken to a creepy sanitarium, and presently discover Johnny’s there as well, having come in through a strange tunnel.
The three young people make the acquaintance of Dr. Ziska (Lon Chaney), Caliban, Rigo, and Daffy Dan. Dr. Ziska is delighted one of his new hostages is a woman, since he’s been really eager to get a woman for his planned mad experiment. He also wants to use Amos as part of this experiment. All through this night, a series of creepy events transpire.
Johnny finds a passageway leading to the cellar, where the sanitarium’s real doctor and several patients turn up. Of course, it comes out that Dr. Ziska and his entourage are the quintessential inmates who’ve taken over the asylum. Johnny is now on a mission to save his friends, capture the villains, get the police to the scene, and show them how he saved the day.
In spite of knowing this wasn’t intended as a star vehicle for Lon, it can’t help but feel he’s a bit wasted here. He doesn’t appear until about a third of the way in, and doesn’t get a huge amount of screen time after that. Additionally, we don’t know any real details about his planned mad experiment until the final reel, and he doesn’t do a lot of truly scary, creepy stuff on the way to getting there.
Two of the prints I saw were also kind of disappointing. Neither had a great soundtrack, and they both had obnoxious sound effects, including speech. Certainly, a number of films from the late silent era had synchronized sound effects, but it’s pretty obvious this wasn’t the case. These sound effects are so obnoxious, overdone, and inappropriate. It jars me out of the silent film experience to hear something like a phone ringing, knives being sharpened, or a car horn.
Bizarrely, a lot of the intertitles looked like modern recreations, what with the decidedly contemporary typeface and colors. If you must recreate lost intertitles or summarize what happened in a missing reel or scene, you’re supposed to match it to the style of the existing intertitles. There were also a few embarrassing typos in these modern intertitles.
I saw this film on TCM years ago, but I can’t remember if they had a better soundtrack and used proper intertitles. Given the quality of the silents they present, I’d be shocked to discover their print were unnecessarily sub-par.