As noted in my review of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Lon Chaney’s performance and makeup in that film inspired Universal to begin a series of horror films that would become known popularly as the Universal Monsters series. Thus it was only natural that for the first of these films, released in 1925, they would turn to Lon Chaney to play the title role. As with the Hunchback, the Phantom is a natural human being, rather than a supernatural creature the way some of the later monsters are. And the film is likewise a period piece. What sets it apart, however, is that where Quasimodo was purely a tragic figure and a pawn in the games played by those around him, Erik the Phantom is the game-master and, though human, is most assuredly a monster. What makes The Phantom of the Opera the first true Universal Monsters picture instead of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is that it was intended as a horror movie from the beginning. And though modern audiences may find it less than frightening, it is easy to see how the entire genre owes a lot to these beginnings.
A psychotic disfigured genius, death traps, sadistic choices… hey, I think I see the inspiration for Saw!
The film is set in the Paris Opera House, where singer Christine Daae (Mary Philbin) has been working as the understudy to Carlotta. Carlotta is popular with the people and with the opera house owners, but someone in the opera house isn’t as big of a fan. There is a mysterious figure who haunts the opera house, and the owners begin receiving letters from this Phantom telling them to let Christine sing the lead or there will be dire consequences. Behind the scenes, Christine receives tutelage from a voice behind her mirror — guess who? — and is eventually told to break things off with her beau, the Vicomte de Chagny (Norman Kerry). Eventually, her suitor and tutor reveals himself to her, but not without some rules in place. He says he will make her a star, but she is to be his forever, and she must never remove his mask. Inevitably, she does.
This film version uses a full face mask; you don’t think a mere domino could hide all that, do you?
Chaney’s appearance is astounding. Not only is the makeup truly hideous, but it looks completely believable. And when the mask comes off, so does the veneer of Erik’s civility. His personality, which already seemed rather possessive and insane, comes completely unhinged. He is cruel to Christine, and seeks to kill the Vicomte and anybody else who gets in the way of his random whims. It’s my understanding that some later adaptations portray the relationship between Christine and Erik as having romantic overtones; that is not in effect here. In this film, Christine reacts the way any normal, rational human being would to someone who states he will kill her fiancee if she sees him again and wishes to keep her pent up in a cellar dungeon between shows: she attempts to get away as quickly as possible.
There are apparently a few different cuts of the film floating around. The bulk of the film was directed by Rupert Julian, but some later versions made alterations with, occasionally, added scenes or altered dialogue. Most notably, the 1929 version — the first sound version, although it was also released as a silent film, as per the original — relabels actress Virginia Pearson as being Carlotta’s mother instead of Carlotta herself, and adds Mary Fabian as Carlotta on stage. It was the silent film version of the 1929 release that I saw, though I can’t say as it would have made a significant difference; from what I’ve been able to determine, the bulk of the film remains functionally the same, save for the original cut having a softer ending.
Julian’s work as director is more than adequate for the task at hand. And praise has to be given to the set construction crew, as the opera house and the catacombs below all look fantastic, as do the costumes — though of course nothing there compares to Chaney’s makeup job. A film on the cusp of technicolor, a few sequences were shot in color; most notably the grand masquerade ball, which benefits greatly from the addition.
It’s always a bad sign when someone dresses up as the Red Death.
There is, unfortunately, one significant flaw with the film, and it’s the obvious one: opera just doesn’t work in a silent movie. Even when watching a release with a decent soundtrack added to it, the disconnect of watching somebody sing without hearing them hurts the believability of the film. It also results in the opera scenes feeling a bit tedious. They are to some extent essential — it’s not The Phantom of the Pantomime Show after all — but as they are unable to provide any intrinsic entertainment on their own, the viewer is left waiting for them to end so that something interesting can happen.
However, this is the only major complaint that can be lobbied against the film, for most of what happens is more than merely interesting. It starts off intriguing and gradually ramps up the level of excitement to that of a thriller by the time the film reaches its climax. And Lon Chaney’s performance, mask or no mask, dominates the film. There’s a reason the film is remembered nearly 90 years after its original release. Chaney as the Phantom is just that striking.