More thoughts on Lon Chaney, Jr.

In thinking more about why Chaney’s horror performances tended to seem forced, I am starting to consider the role of empathy. Karloff once remarked that the Frankenstein monster was the best friend he ever had, and that feeling came out in the performance. His monster was frightening but sad, so the audience both feared and pitied him, and that’s gives the film and its sequel their enduring power. It seems especially important in horror films that the audience experience an undertow of sympathy for the creature. If an actor can’t evoke those mixed feelings of fear and pity, his characterization will fail to be truly memorable. Chaney had an unsatisfactory, maybe even an abusive relationship with his father, and I think that dulled his sympathy for the creatures he portrayed. In westerns, you rarely needed to feel sympathy for his characters because they were almost always bad men (Dollarhyde, Pringle, Elm, Chivington). Even when they were failed men (Martin Howe, Trooper Kebussyan) they didn’t especially invite the audience’s pity.

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