NOTE: The Spooky Season is upon us once again, so it's time for my annual re-post of my four-part tribute to the legendary lost Tod Browning-Lon Chaney collaboration London After Midnight. Whether you remember it from years past or are coming to it new, I hope it brings you a creepy moment or two. Be sure to read the four parts in order -- you don't want to get ahead of the story!
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ILLUSTRATED WITH SCENES
FROM THE PHOTOPLAY
A METRO-GOLDWYN-MAYER PICTURE
STARRING LON CHANEY
Chapter 1 - Balfour House
Balfour House is an old ancestral home on the outskirts of London whose origins stretch back to before the time of Charles II. Successive generations of the Balfour family have added to it until it is a weird and mystifying architectural abnormality, a labyrinth of chambers, corridors, passageways and dark, massively furnished and heavily curtained rooms. One room, heavily bolted and padlocked, has not been opened in centuries. It is said that a beautiful young woman once met a horrible death in that room, and that her ghost walks restlessly moaning and sobbing whenever some tragedy is about to occur in the house. Those sobs are heard the night Roger Balfour is found dead in the house, a bullet in his head, driven to suicide by depression and money problems.
Roger's son Harry, 15, and daughter Lucy, 13, become the wards of their father's friend and neighbor Sir James Hamlin. Since there was no will, Sir James supervises the settling of Roger Balfour's estate and takes the two children into his home. Balfour House and its grounds become shunned and neglected and, with no money left for their upkeep after settling Roger's debts, fall into disrepair.
Five years pass. Harry Balfour, now 20 and more than a little resentful of his and Lucy's dependence on Sir James's generosity, returns from school and announces that he wants to reopen Balfour House. Sir James says this is impossible without major repairs, either by finding a wealthy tenant or a wealthy bride for Harry. Harry refuses to marry for money. Sir James offers to buy the Balfour estate outright, to give Harry a stake in life. Again, Harry indignantly refuses: "So long as I live the Balfour estate shall not revert to other hands."
Soon after this, Harry has an unpleasant scene with Jeremiah ("Jerry") Hibbs, Sir James's secretary. An agitated Hibbs mutters to himself that Harry is "courting disaster" if he goes near Balfour House.
Chapter 2 - Another Mystery
That night Hibbs sends one of the servants on a confidential errand. Overheard by the maid, Anna Smithson, Hibbs asks her to say nothing to anyone.
An hour later a group of Sir James's servants, lashed by wind and rain, spooked and unnerved as they search through the overgrown grounds at Balfour House, find the body of Harry Balfour. As they lift the body to carry it to shelter, one of the servants swears he can hear, beneath the whistling of the wind, the wails of the ghost in the secret room of Balfour House.
Chapter 3 - Who Killed Harry Balfour?
Lucy Balfour is still worrying about Harry's disappearance when her brother's body is brought in. She is distraught at his death and horrified, as are the others, at the sight of two red wounds on his throat. The coroner's inquest returns a verdict of death at the hands of "person or persons unknown." In testimony at the inquest, neither Sir James nor Hibbs mentions their respective run-ins with Harry before his disappearance. The maid Smithson testifies that on the night of the murder, she was looking out a window into the storm and saw a man heading toward Balfour House. The man was definitely not Master Harry, she says. It is assumed that the person she saw was the murderer, but there is no clue as to his identity, his motive, or why he would make those wounds on Harry's throat.
Chapter 4 - Hypnotic Hypotheses
Chief Detective Inspector Burke of Scotland Yard, dining with the assistant commissioner of his division, discusses the unsolved murder of Harry Balfour. Burke believes that the murder of Harry confirms his suspicion that Roger Balfour was murdered as well, even though all signs seemed to point to suicide at the time. He says that he has a number of leads but no firm evidence, and plans to test his theory that under hypnosis and the proper conditions, a criminal will reenact his crimes. Burke borrows a book from the assistant commissioner's library, saying that he expects to be busy with his investigation for some time. When next they dine together, Burke says, he is sure he'll have the proof he needs.
Chapter 5 - A Betrothal
Seven months have passed since Harry's death, and Lucy is finally beginning to emerge from her grief. As May turns to June, Lucy finds herself turning more and more to Jerry Hibbs for companionship, and her feelings for him have grown more than sisterly. At last, in a sun-bathed arbor scented by the blooming roses of Hamlin House, Lucy and Hibbs profess their love for one another. They agree to say nothing to Sir James for the time being, for fear that he will disapprove and dispense with Hibbs's services.
Chapter 6 - Uncanny Tenants
Night. Two men stand under a tree on the grounds of Balfour House, near where Harry Balfour's body was discovered. They are representatives of the London realtor's office that administers the Balfour property and are waiting while prospective tenants inspect the premises by lantern-light. The people came into the office near closing time and expressed an interest after seeing a picture of the house in a magazine (the realtors having long since given up advertising the property). If satisfactory, the tenants propose to move in at once. This has all happened so quickly that the agent hasn't had time to notify Sir James, though he did get in touch with Hibbs. Hibbs told him to go ahead with the transaction if the tenants' references are satisfactory. The agent is waiting outside for the tenants because, he said, nothing would induce him to enter the house.
Meanwhile, Anna Smithson and Thomas, another of the Hamlin House servants, are returning from the village station in a cart with the luggage of a guest Sir James is expecting. They see the light in Balfour House. They can see two shadowy figures moving about with the lantern; one of them is a woman, but they can make out no other details. Thomas believes the woman is the ghost of the house, but Anna scoffs. As they watch, the door of Balfour House opens and a man emerges, tall but stooped, shrouded in a heavy Inverness coat and wearing a high beaver hat. That's all it takes for Thomas to crack his whip and hurry the horse on to Hamlin House.
The man in the beaver hat crosses slowly to where the realtor's agents wait. The agents apologize for not accompanying him into the house, but he reassures them -- in his spooky way: "Life is a mystery no man can solve. It extends beyond the grave." They remind him that the owner will make no improvements, but he doesn't mind; the house will suit his purposes.
The agent hands the man the lease papers and he peruses them, only briefly looking up when a mournful wail rises from somewhere out in the darkness. By now the agents are thoroughly unnerved and eager to be off. With a "horrible" smile, the man in the beaver hat slowly signs the lease. As he heads back into the house, the agents scurry off to apprise Sir James of the transaction.
Chapter 7 - Sir James Receives a Shock
At Hamlin House, preparations are under way for the coming of Colonel Yates, Sir James's guest, when the realtor's agents arrive. Sir James is astonished to learn that Balfour House has been let, and it is evident that the surprise is not an entirely pleasant one. Hibbs explains that he did not expect the tenants to take immediate possession; he thought they would merely inspect the property and then negotiate terms. The agents report that the tenant's references were impeccable and he paid the entire term of the lease in cash, in advance.
Reassured, Sir James glances at the papers the agents have handed him. His calm demeanor vanishes and his face goes white when he sees the signature on the lease. It is signed "Roger Balfour." And it is in Roger Balfour's handwriting.
Chapter 8 - An Unexpected Guest
Why wasn't this noticed at the office? Sir James asks. The agent replies that the matter was handled by a new employee who didn't know the house's history; the agent himself had simply presumed that this Roger Balfour was perhaps a distant relation wishing to see the ancestral home. Sir James says there are no other branches of the family and demands a description of the man in the beaver hat.
At this point, the butler announces Colonel Yates. Sir James's consternation is almost complete, because in addition to this shock about Roger Balfour, he has been trying all day to remember who Colonel Yates is; he learned only today that this "old friend from India" was coming, and has been unable to place the name. As Yates is ushered in, however, Sir James remembers him at once and is reassured by Yates's solid, dependable, no-nonsense presence. In fact, he welcomes his guest's opinions on the matter of the new tenant at Balfour House, and briefly explains the situation to him.
It turns out Yates had known Roger Balfour years before, but had lost touch and did not know of his death; he says suicide seems unlike the Balfour he knew. When the agents describe the new tenant as "creepy" and "un-holy," Yates scoffs. "You chaps must have been smoking something..." His laughter diffuses the tension in the room; even Sir James looks less upset.
Chapter 9 - Ghouls
As Yates and Sir James discuss the matter later, alone, Sir James shows Yates some documents signed by the late Roger Balfour, and Yates concedes that the handwriting on the lease is unmistakeably the same. Mulling this over, he cautions Sir James not to dismiss out of hand the idea of supernatural; years in India, he says, have taught him the folly of that. In fact, he has a book with him that he thinks might bear on the subject, and promises to give it to Sir James. Later, after dressing for dinner, Yates gives the book to Hibbs to place in the library, where it will be available to anyone interested. Hibbs (who for some reason has taken an instant, mild dislike to Colonel Yates) does so, and a glance at the book's contents interests him enough to make him resolve to come back to it later.
All through dinner, and even afterward as Lucy plays for diversion, Sir James's mind is elsewhere. He had insisted to Yates that he does not believe in ghosts, but he nevertheless has a superstitious nature and is troubled.
After Lucy finishes playing, Yates invites her to take a walk on the verandah. Hibbs, miffed and a little jealous, decides to take a closer look at Yates's book in the library. He finds Sir James in the library, himself so absorbed in the book that he doesn't hear Hibbs's approach. Hibbs suggests that a study of the book might "throw light upon the mysteries of Balfour House." Sir James says the mysteries be damned, he just wants to know who signed Roger Balfour's name to that lease.
When Yates joins them in the library, Sir James shows him a passage in the book, printed in early English text, that has particularly alarmed him: "Men who have died by murder or suicide frequently become vampyrs." The two agree that, unpleasant as the idea is, nothing will do but that they inspect the vault on the grounds of Balfour House where all the Balfours, including Roger, have been entombed. The sooner the better.
After midnight Yates and Sir James set out, armed with revolvers and carrying a lantern. Almost immediately Sir James's courage begins to fail. He senses that someone, or something, is following them and trying to stop them on their errand, but every time he turns around, nothing is there. Only Yates, in his "military determination," is unwavering, and Sir James forces himself to go on.
At one point something suddenly flaps at them out of the darkness. A bird? A bat? No way to tell. Slowly, carefully, onward they creep. At the door to the Balfour crypt Yates raises his lantern. The door is closed and locked, seemingly undisturbed since the day months earlier when Harry Balfour was interred there. Sir James's hand shakes as he inserts the key into the locked door. The rusty lock resists, but eventually yields, and the door slowly swings inward.
The two men halt at a sudden sound -- it sounded almost like a sigh. They wait, tensed, but now there is only silence.
Standing in the yawning doorway, they peer into the darkness of the tomb. Yates raises the lantern and holds it forward in the gloom. By the dim yellow light, Sir James's eyes search the shadows. His blood freezes as he sees that the lid of Roger Balfour's coffin is open. The coffin is empty.
There is a flash of lightning, a rumble of thunder, and somewhere in the night, the mournful, blood-curdling howl of a dog.
To be continued...