(From now until Halloween, the Canadian Cinephile will be taken over by pure, unadulterated FEAR. No, I’m not commencing an Adam Sandler marathon. I will be reviewing some of the most spine-chilling, bloodcurdling horror movies, with this year’s trip covering those freaky films released prior to 1970. There will be a special focus on Universal’s classic monster pictures, so bring your hot cocoa. It’s going to be a dark and scary ride. Sort of.)
Without question, the 1925 silent film version of The Phantom of the Opera is a commanding experience. Initially directed by Rupert Julian until he was replaced by Edward Sedgwick with help from Lon Chaney, Sr., this adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel is a brimming spectacle that even includes a splash of vibrant colour to showcase its ultimate grandeur.
And indeed, The Phantom of the Opera is about that grandeur. The Leroux story abounds with surprising humour and terror, telling the tale of haunting and splendour at the Paris Opera House by blending the arts with the hollow pits and channels below the Palais Garnier. And this cinematic vision understands that, showcasing the dreamlike melodrama with plenty of pop and sizzle.
The movie opens with the Paris Opera House debuting a new season and a production of Faust. The Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry) is in love with Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin), who has risen through the ranks to become the prima donna. Raoul wants to marry Christine, but she seems to rebuff his proposal. What’s more, there’s an Opera Ghost calling the shots behind the scenes.
The ghost writes letters to the managers of the opera insisting that Christine performs night after night. Raoul presses Christine and discovers that she’s under the tutelage of the spectre, who is also known as the “Spirit of Music.” When the ghost eventually snags Christine and takes her to his secret lair below the Opera House, Raoul must spring into action or risk losing his love forever.
The disfigurement of the Opera Ghost/Spirit of Music/Phantom is this picture’s ace in the hole, what with Lon Chaney, Sr. embodying Leroux’s figure as a tortured man obsessed with Daaé and willing to do anything to see his love come to fruition. Chaney plays him as a figure clinging to the shadows, existing in a curious underground world where he conducts his eerie business.
The great unveiling is one of the critical moments in The Phantom of the Opera, but Chaney’s initial mask is particularly creepy. It is nearly an angelic aspect but for a thin layer of gauze covering his lips. The audience understands that something isn’t right beneath the mask and the eyes are wild and horrifying.
When Daaé does finally rip off the mask, the full scope of the Phantom’s horror is known. The “Man of 1,000 Faces” is displayed in perhaps his most grotesque form, representing a more dynamic suggestion of the character’s petrifying appearance than any of the half-assed representations in subsequent interpretations.
The point here is that Chaney’s Phantom isn’t just a hot guy with a scar and a cool mask. He’s a gruesome and sinister figure, one wreaked by inner torment and set upon by unrelenting desires. He prowls through the Opera House, causing the chandelier to fall on the audience and creating all sorts of psychological chaos to boot.
More than anything, it seems that Chaney’s Phantom is tired of his world. The actor creates so much with his body language, gesturing to the coffin where he sleeps with a sense of sorrow and haunting the world at the Masked Ball. He lingers atop a statue when Raoul and Christine talk over their plans, clearly hurt by what he sees as betrayal.
There are many tricks in The Phantom of the Opera, from the aforementioned overlay of colour to the makeup created by Chaney himself. But what’s perhaps most striking about the entire production is how busy it is, with people continually racing this way and that throughout the Paris Opera House. Things are in a state of constant motion, with sumptuous sets and extras filling the screen with action.
The Phantom of the Opera is a silent movie spectacle, a film that brings Leroux’s classic tale to life with vigour and flavour. It’s the most energetic revelation of the story to date, with Chaney’s image of the Phantom the most precise and frightening of all-time.