Now this is the Phantom movie we wanted. Hauntingly atmospheric with a genuine mystery pulling us along, we would watch this movie without Lon Chaney’s tantalizing performance. But of course, that’s just what places this film on every horror fan’s “essential movie list”.
Director: Rupert Julian
Written by: Elliot J. Clawson
Runtime: 101 minutes
US Release: September 6, 1925; Universal Pictures
Based on the 1910 novel by Gaston Leroux, the movie follows the seemingly ghostly accidents plaguing the Paris Opera House. Stagehands turn up dead; audiences witness a shadowing figure in the balcony; and the Opera managers are receiving cryptic warnings from “The Phantom”, who demands that the understudy Christine (Mary Philbin) replace the prima donna in the Opera’s production of Faust. The refuse, naturally, and the Phantom (Lon Chaney) follows through on his threat. During one evening’s performance, the massive chandelier falls onto the audience. Dozens are crushed.
During the chaos, the Phantom kidnaps Christine and whisks her away to his lair deep within the tunnels of Paris. He reveals his love for her and that she will remain safe if only she never touches his mask. Nevertheless, compelled by perverse curiosity, Christine pulls off the mask. The Phantom, whose name is Erik, is terribly disfigured and scorns the world who hates him for “his ugliness”. Christine now falls into this camp. Rejected but still caring for Christine, he allows her to return to the Opera on the condition he never sees her with anyone else.
This does not last, however, and Christine is soon back in the arms of her lover, the Vicomte Raoul (Norman Kerry). As recourse, the Phantom once again holds Christine hostage, along with trapping Raoul is a watery grave. Meanwhile, the stagehands and townspeople have discovered the whereabouts of the lair. As Christine pleads for the life of Raoul, the mob approaches. In a change of heart, the Phantom saves Raoul and attempts to flee with Christine in tow. Before they can escape the city, however, the mob catches up. Christine is saved and Erik thrown into the river.
Overall, The Phantom of the Opera moves at a great pace, creating a truly suspenseful mystery. Murder, intrigue, and suspicion are all on hand. Working in tandem with these intimate qualities of the picture is the lush art design. The Paris Opera House is a marvel of set construction and the opera-within-the-movie actually complements the Phantom story line (unlike the 1943 reworking). This all works to jumble your expectations. The chandelier set piece, for example, illicit genuine shock because it falls before you even realize what is happening. Like the fictional audience, you are so engrossed in the tragedy onstage that you fail to realize the danger you yourself are in. Then to contrast the speedy fall, the camera lingers on the aftermath; we are forced to dwell on the horror of so many bodies crushed beneath the object.
As for Lon Chaney’s performance, enough truly can’t be said; it is ghastly but also weirdly sympathetic by design. Chaney had an insightful approach to playing “monsters” as humanely as possible. His make-up is also truly iconic. Chaney disappears into the role and yet never allows the make-up to overshadow the character itself.
Ultimately, this Phantom of the Opera deserves its praise. While less melodramatic choices in direction and character may be made today, the film never fails to satisfy. Never boring and surprisingly action-packed (i.e. Bal Masque scene), Chaney’s Phantom stands the test of time.
by Vincent S. Hannam