“His eyes are ghastly beads in which there is no light – like holes in a grinning skull! His face is like leprous parchment, yellow skin strung tight over protruding bones! His nose – there is no nose!”
‘The Phantom of the Opera’, directed by Rupert Julian in 1925, is an silent American horror movie based on the novel by Gaston Leroux. Lon Chaney plays Erik, a deformed ex-convict who lives in the subterranean rooms under the Paris Opera House. Erik has developed a mythical status as a phantom haunting the theatre, but he becomes obsessed with Christine, a singer who has ascended from the chorus to leading lady. He lures her into his lair and attempts to murder her fiancée. It’s a surprisingly effective and chilling visceral horror movie. The sole aspect that tips into that genre from melodrama is the shocking appearance of the phantom, first wearing a creepy, uncanny mask, then attending a masque wearing a skull and finally revealing his true face. The director seems to instinctively know how to create an uneasy atmosphere throughout the film, and the special effects and editing is ahead of their time. The two things that really distinguish this movie however are the sets and the performance by Chaney. The sets are lavish, dramatic and contain nods towards the impressionistic look of F W Murnau, but this is clearly a film with a budget. The movie includes practical effects and sets including trapdoors, a theatre, flooded passages under the Opera House that are all incredibly well rendered, and gives a sense of real drama. Chaney’s performance, despite the fact that his face is concealed through much of the film, still transmits a mixture of obsessional madness and a hint of compassion, whilst his characteristically elaborate make-up is, again, ahead of its time.
Would I recommend it? It’s grand, suitably operatic and really scary. I’d watch in a double bill with ‘The Thief of Bagdad’, a film made at a similar time that also uses its sets to great effect, but when ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ goes underground and finds the hideous Lon Chaney, ‘The Thief of Bagdad’ goes upwards and finds Douglas Fairbanks.