While everyone knows Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr.'s contribution to the beginnings of cinematic horror filmmaking are just as important, despite the fact that maybe his face isn't quite as recognizable as 'the big two.' Best known for his performance in The Wolf Man, Chaney play numerous parts throughout his career of all different shapes and sizes. Retromedia has gathered up four of his lesser known efforts and slapped them together on one fan-friendly release, some of this material appearing on DVD for the first time and a fair bit of it proves he was more than just another scary face and very capable of performing in non-horror material. Here's what's included on the two sides of this disc (yeah, it's a flipper):
Captain Brannigan (John Bromfield from Revenge Of The Creature) runs his ship with an iron fist, he's a hard man who does things his way. In his employ is a big guy known only as The Swede (Chaney) who acts as his first mate and who isn't really the most intelligent of men which we learn fairly early on in the picture.
Brannigan's boat, The Manfish, heads off to the tropics where the ship is soon boarded by a pair of rough and tumble sea men who intend to commandeer the boat and use it to find some buried treasure rumored to have been lost in the area. You see, one of these guys was diving and found a skeleton underwater with a ring and a map and he's out to put that to good use. Unfortunately, he'll need to find the other part of the map by chasing down whoever has the matching ring.
Based on Edgar Allen Poe's The Gold Bug with a few elements sniped from The Tell Tale Heart, this 1956 film directed by W. Lee Wilder (brother of the better known Billy Wilder) has very little to offer those looking for a horror film other than a few moderately suspenseful moments. This is more of a sea faring adventure story than a monster movie though that being said, it's not a half bad way to kill some times. Chaney is quite good in his role and while Bromfield's character isn't the easiest guy to like the performance he gives is also pretty good.
The direction is simple and at times the pacing definitely lags more than it should but the movie benefits from some really nice location shooting and some cool underwater footage as well that does a lot to enhance its mood. Pretty Barbara Nichols of The Sweet Smell Of Success has a supporting role in the film and popular television performer Victor Jory plays the professor.
Telephone Time - The Golden Junkman:
In this episode from the short lived Telephone Time TV series which ran from 1956 until 1958, Chaney plays Jules Samenian, a Greek immigrant who doesn't have much money but who does the best that he can to take care of his family. He loses his wife at an all too young age and is stuck raising his two sons on his own without the financial means to do it easily and is distraught when he finds out his children are humiliated by his lack of money. When the boys decide to further their educations and go to college, Jules signs up with them in order to solidify his relationship with them and maybe even better himself in the process.
Chaney is surprisingly believable in this performance and he brings to this piece a more sensitive side than we're used to seeing from him, one which will make you forget all about his 'monster man' persona. Granted, the material is a little too sugary sometimes and it is unusually wholesome in its melodrama but that doesn't take away from the fact that the man in question stands up and delivers some very good dramatic interpretations. Thomas Browne Henry who had a bit part in AIP's Blood Of Dracula appears alongside Chaney in this episode as well.
Lock Up – The Case Of Joe Slade:
Another television series in which Chaney guest starred, Lock Up ran from 1959 until 1961 and focused on an F.B.I. man named Herbert Maris played by Macdonald Carey. In this episode, Lon Chaney Jr. stars as Sheriff Davies, a man who looks after the law in a small town. When a woman turns up dead, Davis fingers the husband as the man responsible for pulling the trigger but Maris is called in on the scene to look things over and he thinks that Davies' conclusion is wrong and that he might know more than he's letting on.
While this is far from the most memorable performance of the man's career it is a fun little detective story with a cool plot twist thrown into the mix for good measure. Chaney and Carey interact well together on the screen and Chaney does a good job of handling the more insecure aspects of Davies' character. Not classic Chaney, but this episode is still worth seeing for fans of his work.
The Indestructible Man:
Saving the best for last, Retromedia actually has The Indestructible Man listed as a bonus feature on this release, despite the fact that it's definitely the best known piece contained in the set.
In a starring role, Lon Chaney Jr. plays Charles 'Butcher' Benton, a man put on trial who ends up on death row when his lawyer stabs him in the back. Benton is put to death, but not for long! Soon enough, a pair of scientists, Professor Bradshaw (Robert Shayne) and his assistant (Joe Flynn) use electricity to inadvertently bring Benton back to life, at which point he makes it his goal to hunt down and exact his revenge on the lawyer who put him on death row in the first place and anyone else involved in landing him in jail.
While it isn't a particularly good film in the traditional sense, The Indestructible Man is definitely a fun movie. Chaney is great as the murderous criminal brought back to get his revenge and he makes the most out of the material. Adding to the atmosphere is some very dry, deadpan narration that serves more to explain away some oddities in the plot than to do much else. The movie moves along at a very brisk pace, and at only seventy minutes in length it is on the short side but director Jack Pollexfen (who wrote The Atomic Brain) manages to keep everything together resulting in a fun drive-in picture.
Video quality is all over the place here. Let's start with the good: Manfish looks alright despite the fact that according to the end credits it was shot in color and the presentation on this DVD is in black and white (indicating it was taken from a television print, perhaps?). The Indestructible Man looks the best of the lot, and this transfer was, according to the packaging, taken from a 35mm film print. There's some nice detail present in here that viewers probably wouldn't have been able to pick out in previous home video releases and while it still isn't perfect the contrast levels look decent as well. Unfortunately The Golden Junkman has seen better days as it looks too muddy hear with a lot of the detail in the darker scenes lost almost completely to the shadows. The episode of Lock Up that completes the set doesn't look great either, falling somewhere in between Manfish and The Golden Junkman in terms of quality. Expect to see scratches and print damage throughout on all four features, it's just part of the presentation of some of these films sometimes. Everything shows up here fullframe but the compositions look decent enough leading one to guess that it is quite possible that is how they were meant to be seen.
Each of the films in this set are presented in English, which is fine considering that's how they were meant to be heard. As with the video presentation there is some variation from one movie to the next but overall for low budget movies well into their sixties, these don't sound too bad. There's some mild hiss present pretty much throughout each picture but that's as bad as it gets. The dialogue is usually pretty clear despite one or two instances where things are a tad muffled.
Despite the fact that The Indestructible Man is listed as a bonus feature, it's probably the main reason most people will pick up the disc in the first place so it makes more sense to consider that film part of the feature presentation. Other supplements on this disc include an interview with Gary Graver entitled Remembering Lon in which the director discusses the times he was lucky enough to work with Chaney on The Blood Suckers which was a later entry in his filmography. It's an interesting and affectionate discussion of the horror movie legend that touches on his personality on set, his relationship with Boris Karloff, and some other fun trivia. The disc also includes a decent still gallery of promotional photographs of Chaney as well as menus and chapter stops.
With this set you get two reasonably scarce Lon Chaney features and two reasonably scarce television episodes which he appeared in as well. While the audio and video presentation is nowhere near perfect, everything is at least watchable and fans of Chaney's output will definitely get a kick out of being able to add some of this material to their collections. Recommended for fans of the man, a solid rental for anyone else who may be curious.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.