Being Film #9 for Hooptober 2022
The biggest surprise for me upon watching 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera was how – 6 years before Universal horror really kicked off in the sound era with the 1-2 punch of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931 – a lot of the style and mood of those classics were already in place in the silent era. Maybe that’s a credit to Carl Laemmle jr. who produced the films. Maybe it’s just that at that point the studio “feel” was firmly in place. Regardless, the charms are inescapable and it feels more spun from the same cloth as its brethren in the 30s as opposed to the direct remake starring Claude Rains in the ’43 version.
THE QUICK SUMMARY: Something is lurking beneath the lush Paris Opera House, and it yearns to make the young and beautiful Christine a major star. This mysterious “Phantom” will go to any lengths to ensure she gets her chance to shine, but at what cost? Is the Phantom the ultimate incel? Did I really just write that? Spooky murder and incredible makeup is afoot in this silent classic!
Reading through the history of the film’s production, it’s a wonder The Phantom of the Opera is as good as it is. Original director Rupert Julian was released after initial previews, and the film underwent massive re-shoots which also proved disastrous before a complete reedit featuring much but not all of Julian’s film restored. I think what ultimately saves the film are two things: the incredible set design – particularly the way they build out the underground of the theater with its secret passages and medieval labyrinths. Combined with the color tinting at the time it presents an effective eeriness: take the scene where Christine finally walks through a mirror door to meet her mysterious benefactor. The Phantom leads her to another world entirely, one far removed from the posh opera house above. As he leads her through the winding tunnels on a horse and then boat the film takes on a surreal, Escher-inspired look that is indebted to the great German silents like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
And then of course there’s Lon Chaney. Much has already been made of his unbelievable makeup effects, all devised himself (he was given a tremendous amount of latitude after his work on The Hunchback of Notre Dame) but one thing I don’t see mentioned enough is how creepy the mask he wears to cover his hideous visage is. I think there’s a cultural block that makes us think of it like the mask from the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical, but the truth is far more disturbing: it hangs and flaps in places, obscuring his mouth and feeling more waxy and transparent, as if you can feel the twisted skin just beneath it.
But like all great actors, the makeup isn’t the performance: even without the benefit of sound Chaney is able to channel all the pathos, rage, and despair into his Phantom in a way no one else has been able to do in the decades since. For that alone if nothing else The Phantom of the Opera is a must-see.