History of Horror: The Phantom of the Opera

Dir. Rupert Julian, USA, 1925

The most famous of Lon Chaney’s horror roles (he’d also played Quasimodo in 1923, and would go on to play the vampire in London After Midnight in 1927), The Phantom of the Opera is a pretty faithful adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel.

It opens with the old managers of the Paris Opera House resigning at the height of their success, and handing the reins to the new management. It turns out the opera is under the influence of a mysterious ghost, who instructs that Box Five is to be kept empty for him, and who is promoting the chorus girl Christine Daae at the expense of the prima donna Carlotta.

A lot of the early scenes feature twittering ballet girls trilling in excitement and fear as a gay-coded scenery shifter tells tales of the gruesome ghost, with its skull-like head and parchment skin. There’s rather too much of this, even if the grisly description of the phantom is pretty accurate to Chaney’s Phantom. The menacing shadow that haunts the cellars of the opera house is juxtaposed with the broad comedy gurning and camp of Snitz Edwards as the scenery shifter.

When the Phantom does finally materialise in person – first as a vanishing figure glimpsed from the rear in Box Five, then as a masked man lurking behind Christine’s dressing room mirror – he’s an immediately imposing presence. Chaney’s acting skills are visible even through the mask and cloak – a malevolent wryness, amused at the chaos and fear he creates. He kidnaps Christine and takes her to his lair in the impressive vaults beneath the theatre, where he’s somehow constructed a full-size organ and a room swathed in silk curtains with a boat for Christine’s bed. The Phantom himself sleeps in a coffin as a reminder of the endless sleep that awaits us all. Also, because it looks cool and he’s mad as a hatter.

There follows the famous unmasking scene, with the Phantom staring directly into the camera. The make-up is impressive, if hardly very horrible – one of the more dated things about The Phantom of the Opera is that an ugly man can apparently make Christine faint with terror. If it was down to the make-up alone, Phantom could hardly qualify as a horrific movie.

However, the Phantom is a genuine psycho: a kidnapper, a manipulator of a young woman; murdering indiscriminately when his demands are not met; threatening Christine’s lover Raoul with death, and torturing Raoul and a secret policemen when they try to rescue her. All this is shown at length. While there is enough incident to avoid the film becoming boring – most notably the early climax of the Phantom bringing the chandelier crashing down into the auditorium, and the impressive Bal Masque sequence (in colour in the 1929 print) – it’s fair to say that Phantom is big on spectacle, but plodding. The scenes without Chaney tend to fall flat.

In that sense, Phantom presages many later horror films, which rely on the shock and horror generated by a villain’s appearances to make up for the less-than-stellar script and acting. Stars like Lugosi, Karloff, Cushing, Lee and Price were so often in demand because filmmakers knew their capabilities would offset weaknesses elsewhere in the production. As the first horror star, Lon Chaney makes The Phantom of the Opera work. With a lesser actor, or an actor less comfortable playing horror, it’s hard to imagine this working at all. As a star vehicle for Chaney, it’s good – but taken as a whole it’s significantly weaker than Nosferatu or Caligari, lacking their visual style, pace or imagination.

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