Readers, I know I’ve said this before- but this is a weird one. The thirties were an awfully strange time for genre cinema. Pre and post code pressures alike make it about as diverse a period as has ever been, in terms of content and tone. Meanwhile the strictures of the genres themselves were still pretty loose, and the assembly line style of studio filmmaking was really starting to gear up, meaning the law of averages guarantees that every once in a while an absolute mutant of a movie like The Unholy Three got made.
But enough beating around the bush, just how strange is The Unholy Three? Well it’s a movie that features the sight of Lon Chaney in drag, threatening a strong man with a caged ape. Said caged ape actually being a man in a suit whose costume makes vigorous claim to “Least convincing man dressed in ape suit of all time.” Which is saying something as “quality of ape costumes in old fashioned films”, is a particularly low set bar if there ever was one. This scene is, by the by, directly preceded by one in which a midget straight up kicks a toddler in the face. Readers, this is a weird one.
Not quite a horror film or a crime film (the type of genre bleed over that was common in the thirties) The Unholy Three follows the titular trio, a gang of former freakshow workers, who turn to crime when their carnival is shut down (a result of the aforementioned toddler face kicking. That’s the sort of thing that will just ruin the reputation of a family entertainment establishment, believe you me). Led by Professor Echo (Lon Chaney in his only sound film and last role. He died of throat cancer a mere two months after the films release. All the sadder given that his comfort in the role suggests that he would have made the leap to sound stardom with an ease that few of his contemporaries could match.) The Unholy Three hide in plain sight with Echo taking on the role of “Grandma O’ Grady” and the midget acting like an infant child, in between their robberies and murders. Things only get stranger from here.
The film is a remake of one of Chaney’s earlier hits, and it misses the atmospheric direction of original helmer Tod Browning (who was busy making Dracula at the time). But what it lacks in style it makes up for in its pervasive strangeness. Much more of the film’s runtime is given over to the star crossed lovers of the plot, Professor Echo’s former squeeze, and the dopey shop clerk (perhaps the squarest hero I’ve ever seen in a film) who is set up to take the fall for The Unholy Three’s crimes.
The incongruity between the standard thirties romance, and the bizarre doings of the circus freaks just highlights how odd the ongoings are. It’s as if a standard thirties melodrama has gone stark raving mad. Novelty is tough but I can personally guarantee that The Unholy Three is unlike any film you’ve ever seen.