Review: The Phantom of the Opera / Cert: PG / Director: Rupert Julian / Screenplay: Elliott Clawson / Starring: Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Gibson Gowland / Release Date: December 2nd
Never trust critics. Quite why we like horror movies is always going to be personal. After all, that’s why some love a bit of torture-porn while the rest of us worry about what is the matter with these people. But for this writer, the love affair started with those Aurora model kits of the old Universal Monsters. These were iconic images; not least of which was the 1963 kit of Lon Chaney as the Phantom. This was an image that apparently caused 1925 cinema-goers to faint (although we’d take that story with a pinch of salt if we were you). The Phantom of the Opera (1925) was a massive hit when it was finally released after a troubled production and a couple of false starts; its success is largely the reason for that canon of Universal horror that followed. But contemporary critics were rather ho-hum about it. Had they identified that it was really just a load of populous theatre-fodder?
You all know the plot (although that does vary from version to version) and this is considered by many to be the definitive adaptation. We really are taken into the past here: this is a restoration of the film’s 1929 re-issue and it’s presented here with the original screen tints (so often forgotten on silent movies) and even what survives of the full colour scenes. With a cast of thousands and a giant set that’s still used today, this is melodrama of the most melodramatic sort. But behind the opera house grandeur we’ve got tunnels, chambers and more trapdoors than you’re ever likely to see outside a trapdoor factory. It’s dark, Gothic and silent. If that weren’t chilling enough, it’s got Lon Chaney. The moment that mask gets removed is still shocking. Historians like to put themselves in the mindset of the time. They crave to know what the audience of King Kong (1933) really felt when the big fella first appeared; they even puzzle over what they felt when Charlton Heston rounded the corner to see the half-buried Statue of Liberty and realised that we really blew it up (God damn us all to hell). These moments are lost to the present; only those that were there can really know. But Phantom still holds its power; or perhaps it’s regained it: Thirty years can be unkind to a film; after nearly ninety, the very act of peering into the past provides an unsettling otherworldliness. When the mask is removed, Chaney stares at us. And he keeps staring. Like a nightmare that won’t end. Maybe they really did faint.
Today this film is the stuff of legend, so what did those critics have against it? It was a long time ago; we’ll probably never know. Never trust critics.
Extras: Original 1925 version / Trailers / Reel 5 to 1929 sound version (all that survives) / The mysterious “man with a lantern” scene / Lon Chaney – A Thousand Faces / Booklet and PDF