Top 100 Films #53

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An aging silent classic that still holds up.

By Frederick C. Szebin, with Steve Biodrowski     October 26, 2000

The makers of The Blair Witch Project understood. As did the people behind The Last Broadcast. And The Sixth Sense. True horror comes from character and surroundings. Atmosphere is probably the first key to raising the adrenaline. And it was understood nearly 80 years ago by director Rupert Julian and actor Lon Chaney. The silent movie star was making a living as a human monster in those days, and his Phantom just might be the best of them all, even when considered today, because that man understood pain and loss and madness, and could show them all at once if need be.

In the 1920s Lon Chaney was Universal Studio's biggest star, packing in the patrons who couldn't wait to see what horrific concoction of a human being he was going to create in each new film. For Chaney, the character might have started from the outside in. He did his own makeup in the days before foam rubber. With the most basic of materials (putty, clay, greens paint) and painful contorting of his face (wire was known to distort his nose, eyes, mouth and cheeks at any given time) and a full understanding of who he was playing, Lon Chaney became a human chameleon at his own hand. One his greatest works in both make up and performance was tortured Erik, the Phantom of the Opera.

Restored in 1992 and now being made widely available thanks to Turner Classic Movies, this definitive version of Phantom can be seen in nearly all of its former glory, including the full color Masque of the Red Death sequence that had Jazz Age audiences gasping in their seats. It's an oft told tale: lovely Christine is a fine singer with a most devoted fan who haunts the catacombs of Paris' Opera House, perpetrating creepy shenanigans and outright murder to get her the star position. Christine believes the melodic voice coming through the walls of her dressing room is a guardian angel, but it is mad Erik, filled with love for her and vengeance for anyone who gets in her way. Erik takes Christine to his underground lair where she sees his true face, that of a living skull that remains one of the most unnerving images in horror cinema. On their trail is Raoul, her true love, intent on saving his lady as Erik forces her to make a terrible choice that could have fatal consequences for the patrons of the Paris Opera House.

Believe it or not, many Silent films really do hold up as dramatic or comic pieces, just as they were intended during their original runs. The Phantom of the Opera is one of those. You have to be careful, however, when viewing such old entertainment through contemporary eyes. Acting styles have changed very drastically since 1925. What was heartfelt then seems genuinely comical today. The technology was very basic, but it was used very well by director Julian.

The director's use of shadow, structure and composition prove that Film Noir wasn't as original in 1948 as you would think. Fright in this film comes from the darkness, lurking shadows, and Chaney's wonderful performance as a dejected madman. Erik is as much a victim here as was The Hunchback of Notre Dame two years earlier, another makeup-character masterpiece that remains among the actor's remembered works.

Everyone remains quite good in this classic chiller. Mary Philbin, as Erik's unrequited love, looks young and beautiful, and Norman Kerry cuts a handsome figure with a waxed mustache and slicked back hairthe height of fashion at the time. One of the best elements of this restored version is the swelling orchestral soundtrack, powerful and often suspenseful, created by composer Gabriel Thibaudeau, and performed by I Musici de Montreal under the baton of conductor Yuli Turovsky. As an added treat soprano Claudine Cote adds her vocals to the stage sequences, giving an added depth to those scenes, even if the lip movements don't match.

Even though considered costume mystery-melodrama in its day (the term 'horror film' having not been coined until six years later), Lon Chaney's Phantom is such a keystone piece to the overall landscape of cinema horror that it is nearly inconceivable that anyone would call themselves a horror movie buff without having seen it. This is one of the great treasures of early cinema, and let me tell you, the unmasking sequence still packs a shudder, particularly when the lights are out and you're all alone.

There have been many subsequent versions based on Gaston Leroux's novel, but none have surpassed this silent classic. The story structure is loose, and the directing is not remarkable, but the sets and cinematography create a wonderful atmosphere, and Lon Chaney towers over the film's shortcomings. His silent movie-gestures convey the character during the early scenes, when his face is hidden, and his makeup genius creates a memorably monstrous countenance for the famous unmasking scene, one of the great moments of cinematic horror ever recorded on film.


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