Director: Rupert Julian
Screenplay: Elliott J. Clawson, Raymond L. Schrock, Bernard McConville, Jasper Spearing, Richard Wallace, Walter Anthony, Tom Reed and Frank M. McCormack
Cast: Lon Chaney (as Erik, The Phantom of the Opera); Mary Philbin (as Christine Daaé); Norman Kerry (as Vicomte Raoul de Chagny); Arthur Edmund Carewe (as Ledoux); Gibson Gowland (as Simon Buquet)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #44
Regrettably, while his iconic status is still held aloft in horror lore through older fans, this is the first and only film I have ever been able to see so far of Lon Chaney's, his body of mostly silent horror cinema incredibly difficult to acquire in the United Kingdom. One of the strangest anomalies of the DVD age, especially as the British appreciate horror cinema with incredible reverence, is huge parts of early American horror cinema (Val Lewton for example) have been barely released, Lou Chaney another victim of this. Considering this film, this is stupefying to consider because I immediately mesmerised by him; for once his sinister plastic mask as the Phantom, haunting the Paris Opera House, is yanked off its not only his (still) incredible makeup work that surprises, done to himself using fishing wire to sculpt his own flesh, but how much of a prescience he is. Not a ham, but like Vincent Price or Boris Karloff, he is giving a great performance in context of a silent film just from body language stalking the screen. His shadow is the first thing seen, hanging off a stone wall as a sinister entity preventing anyone but budding opera singer Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin) from playing the lead in Faust, but as he physically appears on screen he stands out incredibly just from magnetism alone, making the unavailability of his career to see in Britain irritating for me.
If there's only one major flaw with this adaptation of Gaston Leroux's original novel it's that, like films nearly a century on, the hero and heroine are a bland duo cast to represent wholesome, lovely normalcy when the diabolical (and sane) viewers like myself are on Chaney's side. Chaney steals the film continually and even if he's psychopathic, you're on the side of this melodramatic, organ playing entity who wants love even if it means kidnapping an opera singer, causing a giant chandelier to fall down on the audience, attempting to drown people in the cellar of his already underground canal lair, and threaten to blow up the entire opera house with gun powder. In comparison, Philbin as the singer threatened by the Phantom and Norman Kerry as her dashing beau are merely stand-ins for the excitement of the story, out done by Chaney and the decadent production design.
While it's not as elaborate and haunting as what was being depicted onscreen in Germany in the twenties, not just German Expressionism but the set design of films like F.W. Murnau's own take on Faust (1926), I appreciate how theatrical but also tangible the world of this tale is. Giant stairways, trapdoors which propel people up like springs as much as they fall down them, secret doors behind mirrors, a sense of mystery around each set to reveal in, let alone the Phantom's secret lair that requires a boat to get to it where he sleeps in a coffin. It does evoke as a result Les Vampires (1915) in how it's not only horror but a pulp tale where each door, each room is a prop that leads to a new event rather than set dressing, the sense of space felt as the environments engulf their characters and each room representing a new plot point. When viewed in the colour tints of the restored version (of blood red, vibrant green), a greater potency is felt to these sets.
Of course, this version of the Phantom of the Opera is also known for its environment with two tone colour in the Bal Masqué sequence. It's rudimentary but witnessing it in 2016, the sight of colour, of pink skin and the deep crimson of the Masque of the Red Death costume the Phantom wears, is awe inspiring, a magic to it because of its flawed appearance against the visceral nature of the colours themselves, seeing experimentation add new colours (literally) to the painter's palette. The sense of spectacle is felt throughout the film, more so because of its age and how it's from an entirely different era where such extravagant sets were built; famously, until it was tragically demolished in 2014, Soundstage 28 where the set was preserved in Universal Studio was still kept into the modern day. Any issue of the more exaggerated acting amongst the cast, particularly the comedic characters who work at the theatre, or the bland nature of the good protagonists cannot detract from the imaginative, exciting nature of the Phantom of the Opera altogether because of this.