RT Archives

The Lost Film that Inspired the Look of Modern Horror Icon Mister Babadook

Lon Chaney's creepy "Man In the Beaver Hat" from London After Midnight was truly terrifying, according to reviews of the long-lost film at the time of its release.

by | November 20, 2020 | Comments

The Babadook, London After Midnight

(Photo by ©IFC Midnight, Courtesy the Everett Collection)

It’s estimated that between 75 and 90 percent of films made before 1929 are either lost or only exist in incomplete form. As part of our RT Archives project, we are collecting contemporaneous reviews for those films – see a full list here and read what critics said about them at the time – and shining a spotlight on the stories and people behind them. Learn more about the RT Archives project here.

Mr. Babadook – the tall and top-hatted monster from Jennifer Kent’s acclaimed film The Babadook – might be the most iconic horror villain of recent times. (Don’t believe us? Check out the memes… or just leave your house on Halloween evening.) But while the Babadook is a marvel of modern horror, its roots date back to the earliest days of cinema, and to one film in particular: the Lon Chaney-starring London After Midnight. Here, as part of our RT Archives project, we take a look at that film and how its distinctive visuals inspired one of recent horror’s most celebrated works.

To read reviews of director Tod Browning’s 1927 London After Midnight, a murder mystery flavored with ghouls and hypnosis, is to know that it is terrifying. The Film Daily wrote that “Lon Chaney’s latest chill raiser [has] a story certain to disturb the nervous system of the more sensitive picture patrons.” But modern audiences will never know just how nerve-wracking the film is. Although it has been reconstructed by Rick Schmidlin with the help of recovered still photographs, a script, and new score by Robert Israel – you can find details of that effort at TCM – audiences can no longer see London After Midnight in its original form: the only known remaining copy was destroyed in an MGM vault fire in the 1960s.

London After Midnight

(Photo by Courtesy the Everett Collection)

Trawl through contemporary reviews, though, and you see that a major contributor to the film’s overall creepiness was a mysterious character who – spoiler alert! – is later revealed to be Scotland Yard Inspector Professor Edward C. Burke in disguise. Of the limited imagery from the film that remains, it’s this figure, with his bulging eyes, pointed teeth, and distorted grin, that stands out. The Sydney Morning Herald’s April 30, 1928 review addressed the effect of the creature at the time: “The few moments when a squat black figure like a bat, with glaring eyes and enormous teeth, is seen coming down the stairs in company with a woman in grey robes, whose face is terrifying in its corpse-like absence of expression, imprint themselves very strongly on the mind.”

The role was fittingly played by famed character actor Chaney, known as “the man of a thousand faces” due to his ability to apply his own makeup and prosthetics, and distort his body for the many roles that required it. He utilized those skills to deliver memorable performances in The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, among others. But it was the wide-eyed, grinning Professor Burke that might have been his most singularly disturbing; at the very least, according to a 1928 Photoplay review, the costuming and makeup used “was as gruesome as any [Chaney] had ever worn.” In December of 1927, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle wrote, “Mr. Chaney obligingly applies a figurative bit of ice to the vertebrae by walking in and out of scenes in properly horrifying makeup.”

London After Midnight

(Photo by Courtesy the Everett Collection )

Keen-eyed movie fans immediately saw similarities between “The Man In the Beaver Hat,” as Chaney’s London After Midnight figure came to be known, and Mr. Babadook, the creature from a mysterious pop-up book who enters the home – and/or minds – of a grieving mother and her young son in Kent’s The Babadook. There’s the hat, the black-rimmed eyes, and the exaggerated mouth and teeth. In 2014, Kent told the Mountain Express that the image of Chaney in the 1927 movie “really impressed itself upon me.”

She added in the same interview: “What I loved about that particular image – and you can also see it in the footage we used of [Chaney] in the movie on TV from Phantom of the Opera – is that you can see that it’s a person’s face. It’s just a face that’s been distorted – without CGI obviously – but manipulated so that it looks human, but almost not. And I think that London After Midnight, shot with his face and his mouth pulled apart like that, is really frightening.”

There is a thematic similarity, too, between how both creatures are handled in Browning and Kent’s films. In The Babadook, the creature is more than a terrifying specter who must be vanquished for Essie Davis’s Amelia to move on – he becomes something that the protagonist must learn to make space for in her life. In London After Midnight, Chaney’s mysterious figure is misunderstood as well: He’s ultimately not a villain, and becomes a key part of solving the film’s mystery.

The Babadook

(Photo by ©IFC Midnight)

That turn resonates with something Chaney told journalist Ruth Waterbury in the same issue of Photoplay in which London was so well reviewed – and his performance deemed “perfect.” “I’ve tried to show that the lowliest people frequently have the highest ideals,” Chaney said. “In the lower depths when life hasn’t been too pleasant for me I’ve always [had] that gentleness of feeling, that compassion of an under dog for a fellow sufferer.”

London After isn’t Chaney’s only lost film.  Many of the short silent films from his early career are considered lost, like  The Chimney’s Secret, An Elephant On His Hands, Father and the Boys, Almost an Actress, as well as later film The Big City, another collaboration with director Tod Browning from 1928. You can our guide to cinema’s lost films and read reviews of those films here.


London After Midnight was released in theaters December 3, 1927. The Babadook was released in U.S. theaters November 28, 2014. 

On an Apple device? Follow Rotten Tomatoes on Apple News.

Tag Cloud

Grammys FOX ESPN nbcuniversal crime thriller book The Arrangement Animation PBS ratings Sundance Now Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt talk show A&E Arrowverse DirecTV San Diego Comic-Con MSNBC Film scary movies period drama cults CW Seed Tubi a nightmare on elm street unscripted tv talk blockbuster CBS All Access Spike Chilling Adventures of Sabrina RT21 latino halloween tv halloween Classic Film TruTV Interview venice Travel Channel Pop Logo Action YA MCU Marvel Studios hist cancelled TV shows reviews crime drama Christmas Western Netflix Christmas movies name the review Musical Comic Book BBC VOD Television Academy theme song animated Marvel Television hollywood social media Walt Disney Pictures Oscars Infographic TCA Awards based on movie critics dc Amazon NYCC romance versus batman space rt archives Election Podcast Writers Guild of America south america E3 comic Shondaland comics Mudbound HBO Kids & Family ABC Family Pride Month Winners Comedy Central TNT Reality Competition green book die hard ITV all-time Lifetime Christmas movies Epix toronto IFC football Television Critics Association cats Watching Series mutant CNN BBC One Turner Elton John Lifetime Mary poppins Mary Poppins Returns GLAAD ID miniseries FX children's TV stand-up comedy Showtime zombie true crime Thanksgiving romantic comedy The Walking Dead Mary Tyler Moore Tarantino Apple 2017 Apple TV+ travel Trailer worst President independent Holiday medical drama RT History sports Cartoon Network HBO Max Disney Plus police drama Warner Bros. AMC WGN Video Games Black History Month italian Emmy Nominations classics remakes First Look Certified Fresh BET war robots what to watch PaleyFest science fiction french The Witch foreign Comics on TV IFC Films jamie lee curtis Ghostbusters Valentine's Day Sundance TV Cosplay Rom-Com Song of Ice and Fire Box Office Nominations 72 Emmy Awards 21st Century Fox justice league doctor who Emmys Opinion spain Polls and Games Britbox Teen Universal breaking bad Anna Paquin anime Mystery Tomatazos TBS strong female leads zombies canceled comic books BET Awards diversity Acorn TV documentary Women's History Month Binge Guide scorecard Extras vampires USA Network biography composers spy thriller political drama Toys news GIFs VICE spider-man cartoon emmy awards See It Skip It golden globes Pixar christmas movies Music El Rey Schedule documentaries Rocketman anthology Freeform Marvel 4/20 dogs twilight sitcom stop motion Awards Cannes Quiz streaming Awards Tour First Reviews Red Carpet Food Network video on demand archives TCA Winter 2020 LGBT TV Land E! Columbia Pictures 2019 parents obituary 2016 007 Spring TV Amazon Studios FXX 45 Lucasfilm binge zero dark thirty DC Universe singing competition DC streaming service natural history movies serial killer hispanic Dark Horse Comics TCM Superheroe Marathons Pop TV OWN Hear Us Out History rotten 20th Century Fox teaser indiana jones mission: impossible Nat Geo Set visit Holidays films screenings Fox News TV renewals criterion cops Heroines Country HBO Go richard e. Grant The Academy Calendar TCA Paramount CMT harry potter spanish asian-american Hulu canceled TV shows Paramount Network 24 frames Biopics indie CBS Turner Classic Movies comedies Disney+ Disney Plus Bravo Hallmark Summer Netflix aliens Amazon Prime Video Film Festival japanese Best and Worst A24 movie Mindy Kaling facebook Reality adaptation Nickelodeon comiccon james bond SDCC SXSW werewolf Esquire American Society of Cinematographers nature Star Wars cancelled television Chernobyl kids australia Avengers Ellie Kemper video psycho Amazon Prime DGA Year in Review nfl WarnerMedia TV television Adult Swim witnail Creative Arts Emmys fast and furious Photos VH1 Brie Larson festivals cooking joker dark APB blaxploitation Lionsgate Black Mirror slashers renewed TV shows ghosts Star Trek TIFF Sci-Fi Disney cinemax transformers Starz docudrama Martial Arts dragons The Purge free movies New York Comic Con Sundance ABC Superheroes franchise Rock deadpool PlayStation Fox Searchlight Academy Awards sequels TCA 2017 2020 YouTube screen actors guild Peacock Funimation award winner directors Crackle thriller politics satire FX on Hulu Winter TV The CW MTV Pet Sematary concert Musicals black Hallmark Christmas movies superhero Tumblr Horror mockumentary child's play Super Bowl 2015 TLC YouTube Premium Sony Pictures finale best disaster sequel 71st Emmy Awards game show laika X-Men Disney streaming service Trophy Talk discovery crossover OneApp rotten movies we love Spectrum Originals technology YouTube Red Vudu reboot 2018 game of thrones spinoff psychological thriller Family dceu series adventure cancelled Disney Channel Rocky cancelled TV series Crunchyroll BBC America NBC cars supernatural Trivia sag awards toy story quibi spanish language boxoffice SundanceTV Baby Yoda Apple TV Plus chucky Comedy revenge Syfy Countdown Endgame GoT Shudder Premiere Dates DC Comics Character Guide Drama festival Ovation stoner universal monsters Sneak Peek dramedy Captain marvel crime Pirates Masterpiece elevated horror Fantasy National Geographic Fall TV historical drama LGBTQ Discovery Channel casting Stephen King BAFTA worst movies USA