Hot on the heels of his “31 Days of Hammer” in January, his “31 Days of British Horror” in March and his “31 More Days of British Horror” in May, Jules is travelling across the pond this July with… you guessed it… 31 Days of American Horror!
Director: Rupert Julian
Starring: Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry, Virginia Pearson
“If I am the Phantom, it is because man’s hatred has made me so. If I shall be saved, it will be because your love redeems me.”
As undeniably important Phantom Of The Opera is to the both the history of American Horror and indeed the genre on the whole, it’s not a flawless piece of filmmaking.
Sure it looks magnificent and features some strong performances for the era, but it often drags, stretching scenes out interminably at times.
It’s still an undisputed classic though and that’s almost entirely down to the performance of its star, the great Lon Chaney, making what would be his final film for Universal while inadvertently kicking off a cycle of films that would make the studio’s name still synonymous with gothic horror nearly a century later.
Deep within the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera House lurks a mysterious, masked figure (Chaney) . Only venturing out to his private box in the theatre, he becomes obsessed with Christine (Mary Philbin), the attractive new understudy to the show’s star Carlotta (Virginia Pearson).
That figure is The Phantom (Lon Chaney), a horribly disfigured and masked escaped mental patient, who is also a “master of the black art”. Beginning a campaign of at first threats than actual acts of terror against the theatre, The Phantom has only two goals in mind – make Christine a star, but also own her body and soul so she will love him as much as he loves her. His love is not unconditional though, as she must abandon all contact with her sweetheart Raoul (Norman Kerry), live with him in the catacombs forever and most importantly of all, she must never try to remove his mask…
There’s no denying this is the Lon Chaney show. While he would have better performances in other films, his most famous role is still as the tragic, masked Phantom and he delivers a stunning turn here. He plays it with such conviction, such emotion and depth conveyed with only body language and caked in what is still some of the most effective horror make up ever conceived, he’s utterly captivating every second he’s on the screen.
The style of acting in that era of silent was exaggerated and stylised of course, but Chaney puts a level of humanity and believability into if that it doesn’t feel forced or staged at all.
Whether revelling in his madness as he maniacally rides a horse and carriage, his utter despair and heartbreak atop a statue as he overhears Christina and Raoul’s plan to abscond to England or just his powerful but glorious entrance to the masked ball dress as the Red Death, Chaney is magnificent here and deserves every bit of the praise garnered to him over the years.
That masked ball is only one of the visually stunning set pieces director Rupert Julian (and a fair few uncredited directors including Chaney and Universal founder Carl Laemmle’s nephew Ernst) decorate the film with.
That visual of the Phantom in his Red Death costume, descending the grand staircase is still remarkable, a vision in scarlet in a monochrome world, it must have been mindblowing to see at the time as it still packs a fair punch even today.
The five layers of catacombs beneath the opera house are astonishing, due in no small part to the fact that they are perfect recreations of the real thing, adding massive layers of atmosphere and allegory to each scene they are used in.
Look at Erik taking Christina down the stairs for the first time, the train of her long dress trailing feet behind her, like a bride being escorted by her new husband on their wedding night, but instead of heading to wedded bliss, Christina is being led to the Underworld.
Similarly, The Phantom’s use of a gondola across the underground black lake is a clear nod to Charon the boatman, ferrying the dead over to Hades.
The only real main issue with The Phantom Of The Opera is it just takes too damn long to get to the point at times, like Carlotta’s song before the giant chandelier falls on the crowd. The wait is interminable and not in a tension-building way, it just feels padded. Even scenes with Chaney aren’t immune, with the tense choice given to Christina of the two levers that will either save Raoul but doom her to life with Erik, or blow up the entire building and kill them all. That’s a marvellous device and looks wonderful with each lever shapes like a scorpion or a grasshopper, but it goes on for what seems like forever.
It’s the pacing that really lets The Phantom Of The Opera down the most, as for every enthralling scene or iconic moment, there’s a long grind to get there. Saying that, it’s a testament to how strong the main elements are that it still most definitely deserves its classic status, even if it’s not perfect.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy