It’s good to see bad acting get its due. Jim Carrey is asked what other performer makes him laugh, and he says William Shatner. The all-but-official poster boy of the Ham Council, Shatner has indeed come to represent delicious thespian excess to a whole generation of show-business cynics like Carrey, who revel in overwrought vulgarity as evidence of the old values of seriousness and industry gone wildly wrong.
Carrey is right, of course, even as he tempts deeper cynicism by taking his beloved excess to the brink. But Shatner wasn’t the first and the grandest of the grandiose. One pioneering actor will forever remain at the top of the over-the-top: Lon Chaney Jr.
The son of a real actor — the silent disguise specialist whose name he appropriated (first by changing his name from Creighton Chaney to Lon Chaney Jr., later by dropping the ”Jr.”) — Chaney traded on his father’s fame to become a monster-movie star in the heyday of Universal Studios’ horror shop; although he’s best known as the Wolf Man, he also portrayed Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Mummy. Cast in character roles in most of the 150 films he made until his death in 1973, Chaney also starred as a leading man in a string of low-budget ”Inner Sanctum” mysteries in the 1940s. Six titles in the series (on three tapes) have just been released on video for the first time: Calling Dr. Death, Strange Confession, Weird Woman, The Frozen Ghost, Dead Man’s Eyes, Pillow of Death (1943-1945) and the event is an occasion of incalculable glory in the culture of bad acting.
Like Shatner in his ghastly prime — the young, hysterically serious Shatner, not the recent self-conscious ironist — Chaney is stunning because he’s epically impassioned about every line he emotes at the same time that he’s incomprehensibly bad. This is an actor who brings equal degrees of dramatic impact to the acts of going blind by exposure to acid and eating a lamb chop. He thinks he’s Olivier — and the funny thing is, he’s more fun in the failing than late-career Olivier was in succeeding to be bad.