The Man Who Laughs is the forgotten silent film masterpiece directed by the German Expressionist filmmaker Paul Leni. It is slowly being rediscovered as the film that is credited for creating the image that Bob Kane would later use as inspiration for his Joker character from Batman.
The film is an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name and stars Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine and Mary Philbin as the blind Dea. The film is known for the grim carnival freak-like grin on the character Gwynplaine’s face, which often leads it to be classified as a horror film.
Taking place in England in the year 1690, The Man Who Laughs features Gwynplaine, the son of an English nobleman who has offended King James II. The monarch sentences the nobleman to death in an iron maiden, after calling upon a surgeon, Dr. Hardquannone, to disfigure the boy’s face into a permanent rictus grin. As a title card states, the King condemned him “to laugh forever at his fool of a father.”
Film critic Roger Ebert stated, “The Man Who Laughs is a melodrama, at times even a swashbuckler, but so steeped in Expressionist gloom that it plays like a horror film.”
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Rob Zombie – The Man Who Laughs