He's a real Phantom menace, this one!
Now here’s a celebrated dark fairy tale that’s been tackled many times in the past, and will, no doubt, be the recipient of many more incarnations and adaptations in the years to come, as it offers up a raft of atmospheric thrills and chills, an entire chorus-line of gothic mystery and a veritable leading light in the annals of screen monsterdom. We’ve had Claude Rains’ 1943 version for Universal, a take that relied more on the lavish verve of its romantic duelling for the heart of the showcased Hollywood starlet Susanna Foster and for the vocals of Nelson Eddy than upon its more suspenseful properties, if we are honest. Then Hammer delivered a wonderfully mounted, yet poorly received and bizarrely neglected interpretation in 1962 that featured Herbert Lom as the vengeful chandelier dropper (the best recreation of the famous set-piece of them all). And there has been enough TV adaptations and nifty sideways pastiche, such as camp rock-opera Phantom of the Paradise from Brian De Palma in 1974, to ensure that this demon of the footlights has established himself as an integral part of popular culture. But, most famously of all, there has been the enormously successful and vastly influential stage production from Andrew Lloyd Webber that has even spawned a feature-film variation starring Gerard Butler as the man-in-the-mask, and a brave musical sequel called Love Never Dies. Proof positive that the tale of a disfigured backstage prompt can become the stuff of enduring romantic legend.
Rather horribly, a dithering Dario Argento even tried his hand at the classic tale, but the results were spectacularly inept, painfully illogical and utterly absurd. Personally, I’ve always been quite partial to the blood-splattery take on the tale from 1989 that starred Robert (Freddy Krueger) Englund as a more homicidal and single-minded Phantom. That one, at least, knew itself to be an out-and-out horror story (and the uncut version is a gorehound’s delight), and took in as many of the traditional tropes as it could whilst adding time-travel and a bodycount to the pot of greasepaint. But in most fans’ minds this is still the definitive celluloid account of the Phantom’s artistic reign of terror.
Based upon Gaston Leroux’s 1916 novel of the same name, the story revolves around the darkly macabre romance between ambitious opera understudy Christine Daee (Mary Philbin) and the mysterious masked stranger who tutors her, grooming her for the prized leading lady status at the Paris Opera House. Whispering to her from behind the walls of her dressing room, this so-called Phantom (Lon Chaney) seeks to improve her voice and her acting abilities, yet also cannot help but incur a mythical and frightening reputation amongst the other performers and technicians who work there. But artistic integrity is torn asunder when it becomes clear that the ghost-like Phantom will stop at nothing, even murder, to ensure that his dreams for Christine come true. Finally opening the magic mirror doorway to lure her down into the catacomb of dungeons and torture-chambers that lie beneath the Opera House, his dreaded secret becomes clear and Christine must face her own demons as she is confronted with the terrifying truth of the Phantom’s egotistical quest. With her suitor, Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry) and the diligent secret policeman, Ledoux (Arthur Edmond Carewe) who has been stalking the elusive Phantom attempting a heroic rescue, the deranged composer compels his prisoner to make a desperate choice that may seal the fate of the entire Opera House and all those inside it.
The film is often regarded as an out-and-out classic and a real gem of Cinema. But in reality, the super-large production from the mighty lord of the Universal silents, Carl Laemmlle (who’s son would go on to become the driving force behind the studio’s phenomenal run of immortal horror talkies such as Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy), and directed by Rupert Julian (with a fair chunk helmed by star Lon Chaney, as well as Ernst Laemmlle and Edward Sedgwick once Julian’s first, and more faithful-to-the-source efforts fell flat with test audiences) was not held in such high esteem at the time, even by its own creators. Worried over the various elements that went into the narrative, things that may well have worked well in a page-turning gothic novel but left a motion picture lacking spectacle, the producers insisted first on more horror, and then more comedy relief. Then more melodrama. It seemed that they had unveiled something vast and unwieldy and they struggled to find of a way of wrestling it into a more manageable and crowd-pleasing shape. Several versions were projected against the all-powerful test screens before they were finally happy that they had something that generated the right sort of response. You have only to look at Michael Bay’s committee-led and unashamedly commercial approach to film-making to see the flapping mindset that Laemmlle and Universal got themselves into. Even back then when the medium was a province for experimentation and invention, there was still a need to have bums on theatre seats. Thus, for all the innovation and groundbreaking techniques that were employed – from the lighting to the special effects and makeup, to the set-design and the audacious large-scale set-pieces to the opulent use of Two-Strip Technicolor and evocative hand-painted frames – the film is aimed so squarely at providing audiences with something exciting or amusing every few minutes or so that it can feel positively assembly-line and generic even before such run-of-the-mill exploitationers would become commonplace.
The challenge of making Leroux's story more cinematic and exciting would see to it that the film underwent lots of changes, edits and reshoots. Between the original 1925 version and the 1929 reissue, Virginia Pearson’s vain diva Carlotta would become Carlotta’s own staunchly protective mother, and possibly superfluous subplots would vie for screentime and chop and change the narrative. Plus the finale would be changed altogether to provide something more gripping than the book's noble idea of redemption. This sort of alteration would not impede the momentum of the film one iota, although certain modifications would insist that the film would inevitably end up shorter, meaning that, for some people, the original 114-minute version can seem a little bit more long-winded and laboured as a result. Personally, I don’t mind the longer version, which we find here alongside two of its altered progenies, although I must agree that the reissues do seem snappier and more action-packed.
Unavoidably, the film becomes a prime example of early pulp, especially when we have lengthy sequences of Christine’s rescuers falling into the gloating Phantom’s fiendishly concocted traps, and this does tend to lessen the haunting ambience of a hidden world beneath the Opera House with drawn-out agonies and last-ditch acts of derring-do. Plus, the climax now seems all-too convenient, even if it is still pleasingly enthralling and boasting of the sort of mob rule that would go on to become something of a stock-in-trade for the Universal horror pictures to follow.
“Feast your eyes! Glut your soul on my accursed ugliness!”
But the film is remembered for something far more primal and emotive … and something that would go on to prove invaluable to the cavalcade of shockers and monster-movies that would thrill audiences right up until the present day. And that, of course, would be the Phantom, himself who looms larger than any of the pretenders who have donned the mask since it dropped from his startling face.
The big unmasking is hailed as one of the landmarks of genre shocks. It remains a stunningly staged sequence of nail-biting suspense and horror, and one that has lost none of its unique power despite the best part of a hundred years of ever-evolving cinematic stingers having flitted across the silver screen and relocated viewers’ popcorn with knee-jerk relish. Like Ben Gardner’s head suddenly lolling into view through the shark-bitten hole in the hull of his little fishing boat in Jaws, this is the epitome of the audience and character heart-stopper. Timing is everything and this is an extraordinarily drawn-out affair. Mary Philbin’s hand tentatively stretches out, shrinks back, and then stretches out again, getting ever closer to lifting off that stylishly blank mask, her jangling nerves not the equal of her own infernal curiosity. Like a moth drawn to a flame, she cannot resist the urge to see what lies beneath. And when the mask finally does come off, with alarming haste after all the build-up, the shock on Eric’s face is kept superbly on the right side of jaw-dropping. Now more than ever, it seems that it would be all too easy to mock the deaths-head visage and the outlandish expression of ghoulish surprise upon the Phantom’s skull-like countenance … and, yet, this is never the effect that it has. Even today, after we’ve shrunk away from ghastly appearances of Leatherface, Pinhead, Jason Vorhees, Freddy Krueger and all manner of ferocious werewolfry, vampiric snarling, alien grotesquery and grisly zombification, this deformed face with its wide-eyes and mouth of anguished, rigor-stiffened emaciation is the stuff of pure nightmare. And it has this effect because Eric, himself, is so mortified that his secret has been revealed. We actually feel his shock and pain more than we do Christine’s. There is genuine shame and a second of stunned and time-frozen self-loathing that many future screen monsters would attempt to extol, but few ever actually come close to approaching. Now that’s a clever trick to pull off … and it took a film that didn’t know it was supposed to be a horror film to achieve it.
It is doubly astonishing when you remember that the design and execution of this monstrous appearance was down to Chaney, himself. Already known as The Man Of A Thousand Faces and marvelled at with both shudders and awe for his incredible body-twisting, face-contorting excesses as the deformed bell-ringer Quasimodo in Wallace Worsely’s1923 The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, audiences now expected something grand from the makeup supremo. That he surpassed their expectations so brilliantly is the very essence that created such classic makeup FX champions as Jack Pierce, Roy Ashton, Dick Smith, Tom Savini, Rick Baker and Rob Bottin. For me, it is his wild, shark-fanged get-up as the alleged “vampire” in the now sadly lost London After Midnight that really inspires a shiver or two. But there is no denying the sheer power of Eric’s ravaged and attenuated face, especially when you can see that the makeup must actually be hurting Chaney as well … a facet that he used to further enhance the haunted suffering of the character, forcing him to convey emotions with a sense of genuine torment and staunched anguish.
The intervening decades would ensure that the horror film would become a separate form of cinematic experience with traits and tones and styles that would be synonymous with the genre. Back then when the original Phantom came out the trend in Hollywood was for melodrama, albeit with dark and fantastically escapist overtones. You had to look to Europe for bonafide fright-flicks, with the likes of Murnau's Nosferatu and Dreyer's Vampyre. For all of its gothique sensibilities, Phantom is a dramatic thriller, the sort of thing that evolved out of the serials with the damsel tied to the railway tracks, and would later draw the attention of the Bulldog Drummond fraternity, or the fans of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes adventures. It was a cliffhanger, and this alone would make it unique in a genre that would soon set down its parameters in (offscreen) blood.
However, this would all be for nothing if it wasn’t for the supreme understanding and empathy of and with the titular character that the film’s legendary leading man produced. Lon Chaney knew that the key to successfully imbuing a monster with life was not only in the fabrication of a convincing makeup, but in the sincere evocation of the emotions lurking behind that mask of collagen, grease-paint, skin-clamps and putty. His Phantom is agile, wiry and unpredictable. His obsession with the arts is unparalleled, except perhaps by his obsession for Christine … but this only helps to qualify him as a lunatic who will stop at nothing to get his way. Artistic vindication notwithstanding, Eric, as the Phantom was known in his prior existence, is a madman. Chaney knows that this damning predilection can only work with audiences if they also sympathise with him. Thus, the Phantom becomes the first of many tragic screen monsters whom we understand have only acted out of a misbegotten set of terrible circumstances.
“Beneath your dancing feet are the tombs of tortured men! Thus does the Red Death rebuke your merriment!”
Although all critics rightly cite Chaney as being the superstar, a great many of them choose to lessen the contributions of Philbin, which I think is a little unfair. It is true to say that she becomes the proto-heroine for far too many horror films. The apparent innocent caught in the grip of something, and someone hideous and relentless is not without its share of rule-breaking nuance. For instance, it could be argued that Christine is little more than a self-centred opportunist. She is seemingly happy with Raoul, but only until the Phantom offers the chance of the thing she craves most – celebrity and fame – and then she’s more than content to follow the masked manipulator into the bowels of his subterranean lair to learn the secrets of success. Of course, it goes without saying that once she has properly witnessed her tutor’s blighted visage and comprehended the full ramifications of his affections, she has a swift change of heart. Thus, our heroine is a little more duplicitous and manipulative, herself, than the overwhelming majority of her screen descendants would be. Yet, without Philbin’s portrayal of the terrified and terrorised Christine, it is unlikely that the genre would have been so keen to throw damsels at the mercy of so many desperate maniacs and monsters. But then again, when you watch the film, Philbin is hardly the complete template for the stereotypical screaming, ankle-breaking examples of cinematic cliché. She fights back against the Phantom once she realises that he is not exactly the perfect teacher he pretends to be … and she is instrumental in his eventual downfall. To this end, it is actually quite satisfying to discover that her hero, Raoul, is something of an impetuous doofus, rushing to her aid without the slightest clue of what he’s getting himself into … and plunging himself and Ledoux into severe jeopardy.
But it cannot come as a surprise to find that the outstanding Chaney almost completely overshadows everyone else. His movements, so glacial and spidery …his presence, so mysterious and unavoidably menacing … and his agility, so catlike and predatory – all go towards producing a character that is three-dimensional and possessed of an energy that is both infernal and tender. Without his arch mannerisms providing hints that there is more going on behind the rictus grin than mere evil it is doubtful that we would have gone on to discover such human interpretations as those from Herbert Lom and Michael Crawford. Chaney, no matter how devious his scheming and how horrid his face was able to give us some of the feelings of this twilight avenger. Look at the pain and madness in his eyes when he holds the mob at bay with what could be a bomb in his hand – it is the twisted guilt and zeal of a madman who understands that he is mad and only partly wishes that things could be different. For now he is centre-stage and performing for the masses.
In many ways this obsessive love is the catalyst that would inform many later romantic but hopelessly mismatched quests, most notably the doomed affair between King Kong and his diminutive blonde bride. In fact, 1933's classic King Kong pretty much follows the same sort of path. Young starlet seeks fame and fortune … meets legendary monster who whisks her off to his hidden lair and almost wins her over … but who must then ultimately deal with her real lover and an angry population that has risen up against him. A skull face becomes a Skull Island. The Paris Opera House becomes Broadway. Both are also sagas of innocence corrupted. And at the end of the day, can Christine Daae be any happier than Ann Darrow once the monster has finally fallen? And what of that other great subterranean phantom who dons a mask to go about his obsessive business? Yes, let’s face it, where would Bob Kane have been without the cultural resonance of Chaney's dark avenger to inspire his creation of Batman? Oh yes, the Phantom's fingers have crept far and wide throughout popular modern mythology.
And we can even see the seeds of societal rebellion, that were the undercurrents seething throughout the Western World during these difficult and turbulent times, in the mob-rule that takes to the streets and ousts the megalomaniacal overseer that has struck fear in them all. We would see this in Lang's Metropolis and even in his later classic M, and it would be become a stalwart cliché of monster-hounding over the next couple of decades. But the rising up of the underdogs to pursue and avenge themselves upon the Phantom has a lot more allegory hidden within its exciting, extras-filled stampede than you may think. It may have been a subliminal acknowledgement of a downtrodden society and a warning about the Great Depression which would, within a few years, bite down hard around the world. In this way, as with all great works of cinematic art, the film can be studied from a vast number of not immediately apparent viewpoints.
Yet it is, first and foremost, a tale of grim adventure behind the façade of pomp and refinement.
I love the way that the elite gendarme Ledoux appears decidedly sinister until you realise that he is, in fact, attempting to ensnare the Phantom. He has that quintessentially Silent Movie villainesque look about him that marks him out as someone you would have a hard time trusting. Leering stares at the good folk do not help his cause. The supporting cast, the loafers, goafers and pulley-men, all seem authentic characters despite being given little to do other than to react to each successive shock and to then mount their own mob-handed brand of vengeance. You have to admire the style of the grand set-pieces, though some of the best are actually the more quiet and mysterious ones, such as when Christine actually follows her tutor's voice and goes through the mirror-door in her dressing room to the dark world below – a true fairytale moment – or when she pledges her love for Raoul and subsequent betrayal of the Phantom as the Phantom, himself, listens from atop the rooftop gargoyle above them, like some giant looming spider in his cloak of blood-red. The Catch-22 deal of spinning either the grasshopper or the scorpion to decide the fates of many. The submerged attack down in the underground canal that even Rambo would be proud of. The splendidly creepy shot of a skeletal hand replacing the workers’ wine with a soporific substitute when nobody is looking.
Aiding in all of this pronounced phantasmagoria is the grand set design from Ben Carre and early horror luminary, Charles D. Hall. The man responsible for 1920 version of The Last Of The Mohicans is able to create leviathan fabrications of the Paris Opera House and the fictitious labyrinth that resides beneath it, aided in no small measure by the semi-expressionistic gothique from Hall. It is important to note that one of the great unsung champions at creating genre mood, Russell A. Gausman, cut his creative teeth here with responsibility for the majestic set decoration. This was the man who would go on to help concoct the wonderful mist-bound stages and laboratory sets for many of Universal’s greatest spine-tinglers, even going on to re-imagine his work here on the 1943 adaptation of The Phantom. Exquisite cinematography from the enterprising trio of Milton Bridenbecker, Virgil Miller and Charles Van Enger maximises light and shadow, endorsing high atmospherics behind the scenes and a sincere display of operatic passion enacted upon the stage. The lighting, especially, is remarkable as it used brilliantly to not only emphasise the eerie qualities of the tunnels and stairways, the subterranean chambers and the backstage shadows, but also to accentuate the Phantom’s unmasked appearance, adding to his ghostly, newly disinterred appearance. There is a sense of size and scale to the theatre, both front and backstage, and the warren of tunnels and chambers that stretch for many levels below ground, not to mention the spooky canals that pulse like the Phantom’s life-blood, take on a fiendish Fu Manchu-like aura of death traps, spectral menace and ornamental decay.
But for sheer splendour, it is difficult to beat the famous Bal Masque sequence in which the Phantom, bedecked in crimson finery and topped with an extravagant full skull mask, cuts a swathe through the revellers in glorious Technicolor, the scene soaking the screen with a purely surreal texture of hypnotic beauty and warped insinuation. With the entire story and film wrapped around the stage and the embellishment of theatricality and all of its treacherous passion, this is when it is at its most daringly avant-garde and fearless.
The Phantom Of The Opera is grand old cinema, and a pillar of the Silent Era. It holds a cherished place in the hearts of horror fans for its inventive makeup, atmospheric sets and its accomplished and iconic performance from Lon Chaney. Invariably, however, newcomers tend to wonder just what all the fuss is about. Whereas Whale’s Frankenstein and Browning’s Dracula still retain much of their original magnificence and magic, this early horror classic is often considered as being far less than the sum of its lavish parts. In truth, Universal didn't really understand what they were trying to achieve, let alone what they had actually created. And yet the film survives their collective idiocies and fears and becomes one of the and first and truest of the great screen fantasies. There remains a subtle alchemy that bleeds a dark and potent drug. When you watch the film, and for some that actually does mean steeling themselves and exercising some initial resolve, you will find yourself slowly, but surely immersed in a demonic power-play that will weave a shimmering spell upon you. Whether you like silent films or not, Phantom has that rare ability to transcend expectation and to deliver sensations of the purest cinematic catharsis. Too often the early classics can seem wooden and suffer from a dose of the Emperor's New Clothes syndrome. But it is impossible to label Phantom Of The Opera in such a way.
This is a work of broken genius. The studio did their unwitting best to destroy it … but the film and the atmosphere it bathes in are too damn strong for their worried meddling to strip away. It exists now in spite of its creators rather than as a true testament to their creative integrity.
Long Live The Phantom!
As we have seen, this release from Image contains three different versions of the film. But, in a rather daft manner, the menu option on Image's disc asks you to select a version of the film via its audio option, rather than the actual movie/transfer, itself. It may not be rocket science, but this isn't exactly correct user etiquette either. A minor caveat, though, in what is, otherwise, a very worthy selection for a film that has had more variations than actors taking their place behind the mask.
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