Plot: When the carnival comes to town, the locals tend to splash out and spend a lot of cash, but for some of the performers, a little extra work can result in a bigger take. So Professor Echo (Lon Chaney) and his partners will go above and beyond, distracting some of the local hayseeds while Echo’s girlfriend Rosie (Mae Busch) picks some pockets to increase the group’s funds. But when one performance crosses the line and Echo’s friend Tweedledee (Harry Earles) starts a wild brawl, it becomes clear that perhaps a new plan would be wise. Echo unveils a larger scope scam, one that involves a retail front and the potential to really cash in, with the kind of hauls the group has only dreamed of to this point. But while the group survived small time heists, will they be able to trust each other to reap the benefits of a long con?
Entertainment Value: This is the original silent version of The Unholy Three, a dark and sometimes unsettling chiller that might not be a direct horror movie, but it still holds appeal for genre devotees. The narrative is well crafted and as someone with an immense interest in the old traveling carnivals, I appreciated the eerie look behind the scenes of that world. This take on carnival workers is quite grim, with a consistent tension and unease, driven in part by how seedy and ruthless some of the characters can be, as if they’re capable of just about anything. The story sets up the characters well and presents an interesting take on an unusual grift approach, but to me it was more about the characters than a traditional narrative. I was much more drawn in by the characters and performances, though I do think the story holds its own and has some creative twists works in. The atmosphere also works wonders here, as there is a palpable tension that runs throughout and as I mentioned before, there are some horror style vibes and rather creepy moments. The pace is a touch slow at times, but otherwise, The Unholy Three is a good chiller than earns a strong recommendation.
I would think most who revisit this one will be fans of Lon Chaney, as he is the biggest name on the cast list and he is terrific here. His performance is sincere and straight ahead, but brings out the nuances of the character. I love the intensity found in his turn here, as he is so in the zone and really shines as Echo, a role that requires a lot from Chaney, who never disappoints. The tone overall of The Unholy Three can lean toward the surreal, but Browning treats the material seriously and the cast does the same, likely why it feels so unsettling at times. The lack of camp or humor emphasizes the darker traits of the material, which Chaney seems to be embrace. So what might have been an over the top performance in less capable hands, becomes a serious effort that elevates already eerie material to that next level. Just as memorable here is Harry Earles, who commands the screen in many scenes and projects a massive presence. Earles really rolls with the dark elements in his character and his performance is a true highlight, a slimy and powerful turn. The cast also includes Mae Busch, Victor McLaglen, Matt Moore, and Edward Connelly.