Lon Chaney as The Phantom
Mary Philbin as Christine Daae
Norman Kerry as Vicomte Raoul de Chagny
The Paris Opera House is the thriving heart of aristocratic culture. Every night the upper crust of society fill its seats and enjoy an unmatched spectacle. The most talented musicians, singers and dancers in the world are on display and competition to be counted among them is fierce. Christine is an understudy to the more talented lead opera singer, Carlotta. Christine maintains the hope of usurping her with the advice and aid of a mystery man who whispers instructions to her. This mystery man turns out to be the notorious phantom, who haunts the opera house and randomly makes appearances in the balcony suites. He will stop at nothing to make Christine a star and entrap her in his dark world.
Most everyone knows something about this classic tale, but the original cinematic depiction is a must see. Leroux’s novel is an important transitional work between the gothic and horror genres in literature. However, the movie must be considered cinematic horror, due to the grotesque appearance of the phantom. The acts of the phantom are depraved and unconscionable, but his visage makes those acts horrific. Indeed, the iconic moment – reverberating through pop culture to this very day – is when Christine tears off the phantom’s mask to reveal the acid-eaten face beneath. Even if you have never seen the film you probably know the image. As for me, it is (and has been for a while) the lock-screen on my ipad.
Lon Chaney’s visage as the phantom is even more well-known amongst the general public than the silent era’s other famously scary make-up job – that of the vampire in Nosferatu (1922). Which is scarier is a matter of personal opinion, but the phantom’s face was more visually influential. Once more, Lon Chaney, devised the makeup he wore and applied it himself.
He was christened Hollywood’s first horror star almost exclusively due to his role in this film. Even though he acted in only a couple horror movies, his performance as the phantom was so memorable that – like Anthony Perkins in Psycho – his name forever became tied to the genre. Yet his importance is still greater. Not only does Lon Chaney steal the show and give the nascent horror genre an early boost, but as the first horror icon in an American film, he set the tone and direction for horror for decades to come. His appearance was scary and his actions matched it and people loved the thrill it gave them. The first Universal monster was born and studios would build on his success – churning out monster after monster in the 1930s. The horror genre now had a direction – a monstrous one uniquely suited to motion picture that directors and writers would follow for decades to come.
Like most silent movies, this one begins slowly and builds up steadily. The sound of the organ playing helps drive the action and is appropriately haunting at times. Contrary to most silent films, the music does not detract from the mood and should not be muted.
Yet, unlike the works of German expressionists, many Hollywood productions seem awkward and out of place in the silent era. Whereas, the expressionists embraced the limitations of speechless film, Hollywood silent productions seem almost to draw negative attention to this limitation. Dialogue frames in their silent films (and this one is no exception) are longer and more frequent – resulting in a continuous flipping from text to action to the point of detracting from the story at times.
You will not be scared, but an hour in you will likely be interested and intrigued – not only by Lon Chaney’s appearance and behavior, but the outcome of this classic tale.
Watch the full movie for free below.