If psychological problems afflicted many of Lon Chaney Jr.’s characters, these problems were rarely the megalomania that so often underpinned the characters of Karloff and Lugosi. On the contrary, he often portrayed tragic figures, men who were the victim of forces beyond their control (as in the case of ‘The Wolf Man’).
Consequently, while many have seen him as a wooden or mechanical performer, his characters were often no more than tragic, if tortured, hulks who were motivated by external forces such as arbitrary curses, pagan priests, and mad scientists.
This sense that he was not his own man was also a feature of his other roles; and, at the same time that he was starring in the Universal horror films, he was still playing in gangster films and westerns. In these films, which were often lower budget efforts than his 1940s horror films, he rarely achieved star billing and was cast as mere henchmen or gang members, characters who did not act on their own behalf but merely did the bidding of others.
Furthermore, his breakthrough role was that of Lennie, in the film ‘Of Mice and Men’ (1939). Although often dismissed as a mediocre actor, Chaney’s performance as Lennie was widely praised at the time and usually receives positive recognition today. In later life he would complain that the role typecast him: “It haunts me […] I get a call to play a dumb guy and the director tells me not to be Lennie but he’s never happy until I play the part like Lennie. Then he does not know why he likes it.” (Lon Chaney Jr. quoted in Brosnan 1976, 23)
Indeed, Lennie bares many features of his later roles: he is slow-witted “on account of having been kicked in the head by a horse”, and he is also a tragic character, who cannot act independently and relies on his best friend, George, to guide him. He is even a victim of his own body, as the Wolf Man, although in this case, his problem is that he does not know his own strength and is, therefore, unable to control himself, a predicament that results in tragedy when he accidentally kills a young woman.
Like Karloff and Lugosi, then, he played a range of roles outside horror, particularly in westerns, roles that were linked by similar psychological issues. For example, in his first significant horror role, he is seen as a mere victim, a puppet dominated and controlled by another: he is “the innocent victim of a diabolical experiment by Dr Lionel Atwill, who is nuts” (Crowther 1941, 25). Not only is Atwill’s character a mad scientist but also Chaney’s problem is a complete lack of volition: “First, the doctor shoots him full of high voltage so that he rivals TVA. Then the playful doctor suggests that he commit murder, and he does.” However, when not under the command of this scientist, Chaney’s character is not free but ‘goes wandering about the earth’, a lost soul without any sense of will or even self.
By the time of ‘The Wolf Man’ (1941), Chaney was the victim of a curse that doomed him to transform into a vicious werewolf, a fate from which only death could save him. In other words, Chaney played a man who had not only lost control of his own body but was also a split personality.
Indeed, his werewolf was explicitly described as “a sort of Mr. Hyde badly in need of a shave” (T.S. 1941, 24) and, by the time of his third film as the ‘Wolf Man’, ‘House of Dracula’ (1945), Chaney’s wolf man was clearly diagnosed as one that can be cured by “tampering with the brain” (T.M.P. 1945, 16).
The success of ‘The Wolf Man’ persuaded Universal to try him in other roles and, in ‘The Ghost of Frankenstein’ (1942), he played Frankenstein’s monster, whose problem was still diagnosed as being a mental one that could be solved by a brain transplant, even if “sinister Lionel Atwill” interferes with the procedure and “removes the brain from Bela Lugosi [who played the evil hunchback Ygor] and pops it into him” (Crowther 1942, 19). Lon Chaney Jr.’s performance as the Mummy also had him “a shriveled of face and murderous of mind” (my emphasis) as previous incarnations but little more than the agent of “a devoted society of Egyptian priests” (T.S. 1942, 19)
Even in ‘Son of Dracula’ (1943), his vampire lacks the dominating force usually associated with Dracula or his progeny. Rather than portraying the victimisation of young women, the film features “a twist to the ghoulish goings on” in which the vampire “acquires a spouse”, and it is his wife that is the dominating figure (A. W. 1943, 16).
Not only does she bring the vampire to America but it soon transpires that this woman is simply using Lon Chaney Jr.’s vampire for her own nefarious schemes and that he is simply an instrument of her will, not vice versa. The marketing campaign even relegated Lon Chaney to the background of many posters and while the wife dominates both the posters image and its tagline: “Temptress of Terror! The vampire’s bride with blood on her lips!”
However, it was with the ‘Inner Sanctum’ series that Lon Chaney Jr.’s horror films most explicitly associated horror with the psychological. In ‘Calling Dr Death’ (1943), a story involving “murder, psychiarity, hypnosis” (A.W. 1944, 11), Chaney plays “a prominent neurologist” whose wife “is found brutally slain”, a situation in which he “suspects that he committed the crime in a moment of self-hypnosis” and starts “reassembling his mental jigsaw” in an attempt to solve the mystery of the murder.
Again, we have a story of a man who fears that he has lost control of his own mind, a feature of other films in the series. By ‘Pillow of Death’ (1945), one review observed that it “probably would not surprise anyone to report that another psychopathic killer is loose” in this addition to the series (T.M.P. 1946, 19). The film is therefore claimed to feature both a “maniac” and “an old plotline”.