Image put three versions of the film onto this disc. Two of them are high-definition transfers, whilst the third, which is the original 1925 version, is culled from a 16 mm private collector’s print (and not the “6” mm print as written on the packaging!) and is presented in standard definition. It is hard to ascertain whether or not a full 1080p transfer would actually have been beneficial to this particular print and, certainly, I did not find the resulting image to present anything worth worrying about. I can heartily testify that I have seen the film look far, far worse than this, so the added clarity and stability of this version can offer is something to applaud.
The original 1925 Version is presented 1.37:1, whilst the two high-def transfers come in at 1.2:1 and are encoded via AVC. The 78-minute reissue is presented at 24 fps, whilst the 92-minute reissue is presented at 20 fps. Flicking through the hi-def options you'll find that the 78-minute 24 fps version is noticeably superior, with an image that looks both cleaner and sharper. Detail in this one, especially, is keen and there are certainly elements of the sets, the makeup and the costumes that have not been as crisply rendered as they appear here. Just look at the shadow depth and the detail in the brickwork, theatre stalls and subterranean tunnels. Even the majestic standing cathedral set that was carried over from the The Hunchback of Notre Dame yields a greater splendour of the more finite detail. For the record, I possibly prefer to watch the longer reissue as a film although it can look a touch more age-worn in its transfer, and does possibly stutter a little bit more noticeably with its frame rate.
Contrast is surely as good as it can be, given the vintage and limitations of the source for each transfer, and I can't see anyone complaining too much about faded blacks and almost surreal and hazy highlights. They are simply par for the course and, in truth, the images all look surprisingly strong and vigorous.
The Techniclor sequences look resplendent enough for touched-up vintage scenes of experimental vibrancy. There is a limited, though effective potency to the reds and the greens, which is only to be expected, and you have to take into consideration the age and the restrictions of the source the transfer has hailed from. But the effect is still an utter delight. The film, overall, is not exactly conventionally monochromatic, but the sudden shift to broad and gaudy is a terrific touch that sears the screen The various Handschiegel Color Process hand-painted sequences look a little more smothered, what with their adherence to the onscreen action – burning amber for the “hotter” scenes, for instance – and detail can be a touch more blurred, but this still looks very appropriate and doubtlessly appreciable to anyone enamoured by how the technology of movie-making evolved even during these very early stages.
Of course, the various prints still exhibit signs of age and damage. But, as is so often the case, it is the nicks, scratches, scuffs and stains that lends such vintage material its glorious otherworldly appeal. Nobody would ever have thought that, though. And let’s be honest, when future film aficionados look back upon the prints and home video incarnations culled from our current technology, they will expect relative perfection. And yet if we saw The Phantom Of The Opera, Frankenstein, Dracula or The Old Dark House looking absolutely pristine and clean and sharp, we would denounce them as being digitally doctored and scrubbed. They simply wouldn’t look right. Thus, The Phantom, courtesy of Image's high-definition restorations looks tremendous. None of the prints are betrayed by excessive denoising, aliaising or edge enhancement, and the images all appear suitably film-like and textured with all of the appropriate antiquity. To expect more would be both futile and churlish.
Inarguably, this classic of the bygone era has been granted a superb facelift that respects the source and does not appear digitally emasculated.
Each version of the film carries a different musical track.
1929 Reissue Version (78 mins) carries a brand new score by the Alloy Orchestra, plus Gaylord Carter's theatre organ score.
1929 Reissue Version (92 mins) features an orchestral score score composed by Gabriel Thibaudea and performed by I Musici de Montreal.
Original 1925 Version features a piano score by Frederick Hodges.
It should be noted that Image have acknowledged that their first run of discs for this release have an error on them. The stereo mixes which we were supposed to have had for the various tracks have actually been encoded as mono. They have promised to rectify this with the next run and to conduct an exchange program for those with afflicted discs. To date, I don’t know of anyone who has experienced the “proper” soundmixes and, speaking personally, I was still perfectly happy with the way that this initial release has sounded.
Although each mix sounds effortlessly sublime and ingeniously orchestrated, the final result is something that depends entirely upon the individual listener. Personally, I prefer the full orchestral score from Thibaudeau, which just carries a greater warmth and a more exciting emphasis, but this is not to suggest that the more “authentic” organ music from Gaylord Carter doesn’t suit the next pair of ears a whole lot more. For myself, I am not a fan of the hugely acclaimed Philip Glass’ musical interpretations of such gothic fare, and I’m thankful, though a little surprised, that he didn’t offer anything for the Phantom. I didn’t care much for his fresh score for Tod Browning’s Dracula, and even less for his opera-take on Cocteau’s Beauty And The Beast, which sounds simply terrible. For me, his compositions seem out-of-place and too elaborate. In any event, I don’t believe that any of the musical interpretations heard here do justice to the visuals. Carl Davis has also done his best to compose a musical companion-piece to the film, although that is not heard on this release, and, by all accounts, it is perfectly majestic, doom-laden and romantically gothic.
However, personal opinions aside, all the soundmixes on offer with this package offer excellent fidelity and range. The warmth and might of the orchestra is impressive, though perhaps a touch too lavish and over-reaching than the imagery, itself, requires. There is also the spine-tingling all-smothering embrace of the organ, which seeks to climb inside your soul with its intimate, rib-shuffling dominance. This may be the most faithful sound to what audiences originally heard during those first few theatrical releases, but it can also sound thick and overly demonstrative at times. There is plenty of clarity afforded the piano track from the award-winning Hodges though even this can come across as lots of unnecessary tinkering and a touch too sparse to fully embrace the drama and the suspense. It is this track that reminded me of the sort of icing that Philip Glass might have contributed.
Whichever track you choose, the quality is clean and sharp and detailed. Perhaps it is this very freshness that makes them sound so “removed” from the film, itself. But you cannot fault the clarity on offer here, even if you end up with one of the earlier mono copies.
Well, after the effort that has apparently gone into the gathering of the three interpretations seen here, this is hugely disappointing.
All we get that qualifies as a bonafide extra feature – and I’m not counting the fact that we have three different presentations of the movie – is a commentary track from silent film historian Dr. Jon Mirsalis that can be heard over the 1929 20fps 92-minute version. This is the sort of thousand-facts-a-minute spiel that has adorned many of Universal’s vintage horror releases. Mirsalis is fast, informative and profoundly enthusiastic about something that he holds very dear. Without a doubt he is an undisputed authority on the subjects of Lon Chaney Snr., the silent movie genre in general and The Phantom Of The Opera in particular. But unlike some of those studio-fixated commentators he manages to dilute the lecture with lots of personal opinion and insight into the production, itself, and doesn’t just provide endless career breakdowns for everybody involved with the film in question. He is not above plugging another release of the film though, and since it is one that he, himself, helped to provide the score for (which isn’t included here on this disc) I think we can allow him that. This all means that he knows his stuff, inside-out and back-to-front. He delivers a very detailed and fascinating chronicle of the shooting of the film, the alterations between the several versions and especially of Chaney’s performance, managing to bring in a lot of personal anecdote about the actor from this and other productions.
There is also an interview with composer Gabriel Thibaudeau and the Film Script to be perused. The disc also offers a Stills Gallery, the theatrical trailer and a reproduction of the Theatrical Souvenir Program.
But what is missing from this release, as with every other release of the film as well, is a detailed retrospective making-of that brings in various authorities and provides a more accessible overview and study of one of the shining glories of Universal’s back-catalogue and a bravura example of what Silent Cinema could produce. I'm sure that people like Rick Baker would have been happy to have participated.
As well-known as the story is, and as culturally significant and populist as Andrew Lloyd Webber has enabled it to become, there is still much to discover in the original film adaptation of Leroux’s classic tale of dark-hearted obsession and horror. Not the least of which is Lon Chaney’s staggeringly iconic portrayal of the disfigured and maddened composer and how this brings a warped energy to his reign of terror over the Paris Opera House. His persona looms like a great shadow-spider over the entire film, often masking, appropriately enough, the more formulaic and wooden elements of the narrative. That he is able to convey a distinct humanity beneath the monstrousness is the key to making us care what happens as the story hurtles towards a grand guignol final act of fiendish death-traps and heinously heartbroken plots. The unmasking sequence, alone, is totally deserving of its legendary status in the genre. And I love the fact that there are so many cult-cherished stories and characters that owe a debt to the Phantom's peculiar style, let alone his doomed love-quest. I'll bet there aren't that many who ever picked-up on the analogies that bleed through into King Kong.
The film is a pulp cliffhanger … which is the aspect that newcomers tend not to realise. But this also represents the great impetus of its infernal momentum. It is melodramatic, of course, but far less overwrought that many would imagine, and far more exciting than many more would expect. Thus, the movie remains a classic in a great many ways, although it is interesting to peel behind the polished veneer to discover the secrets of a very troubled production. That the film was able to surmount these concerns and go on to become a cherished beacon of grandstanding fantasy and gothic mystery owes as much to Chaney’s flamboyantly demonstrative performance and the deliciously moody set design as it does to Leroux's literary foundation.
Image’s release of the film can boast both the original 1925 version as well as two revamped and studio modified 1929 reissues. Although the original is only to be seen in SD, which is understandable given the source, it makes a wonderful companion-piece to the nicely improved and spruced-up later takes. In one package, you can find the version that best suits your mood, although all maintain that inimitable and immortal performance from Chaney. There is obviously damage to be seen on the various prints, but each still looks astonishingly good, and it is nice that we are given a choice of soundtracks too. Not all suit the atmospherics … but, once again, this comes down to personal taste, and you can't argue with a set that gives you a slew of options – even if the menu selection is a bit askew. I wish we had more extra features, though. The commentary is excellent, but I'm surprised that Image couldn't have put together a full-on retrospective making of for such a widely acknowledged film treasure.
It comes highly recommended.
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