director Rupert Julian
I have a very fond memory from childhood of my mother taking me to see a double feature of Lon Chaney’s The Phantom of the Opera with his The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) on the campus of the University of Florida one night. It’s fond in particular because my mother knew how into horror films I was and that I longed to see these films as I longed to see all the classics of the horror genre (or “monster movies” as I thought of them at the time). And she discovered that they were playing these films and took me to see them there, something I can’t recall ever happening again, seeing movies on campus, much less silent classics. She was always keeping an eye out for films showing up on television, but this trip was unique and now for me eternally special.
I don’t know if I got to see the films again very many times. I don’t recall many silent films playing on television. And I think I eventually saw the films again as an adult.
Still it had been a long time.
TCM is such a great network, showing such amazing films in their entirety uncut and uninterrupted by commercials, and their On Demand options are terrific too. They had so many great movies on over October that it was indeed an embarrassment of riches for a horror film fanatic. And I took the opportunity to see one of the most iconic horror films of all time.
The film has a great elegance to it, but when it comes down to it, it’s Lon Chaney and his amazing make-up effect that make the film what it is. The distorted, skull-like visage of Erik, the phantom who haunts the opera house and lusts for the beautiful Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin) is just an image as indelible as any in cinema. Chaney’s performance is far more than just the make-up, since he spends time in various masks.
No mask is more effective and memorable than the scene at the Bal Masqué scene in which the phantom appears in a skull mask and vivid red costume. I don’t know if the versions that I saw as a kid contained a colorized sequence or not. I’m assuming the version that played on TCM was the one with the restored color, though it’s hard to know for sure. This was originally an early Technicolor sequence, vastly vivid and super effective.
It’s an amazing film most any way you take it. Chaney’s make-up is as special an effect today as it was in 1925. As artful and horrific as any image in cinema, it’s fascinating that the monster is simply a man, Chaney’s characters were all human, not supernatural largely (though I would love to have seen London After Midnight (1927)). It’s the corrupt humanism of the villains that grounds them in the natural world, a physical monster but more so a corrupt and moral monster as well. One of the reasons that Chaney is such an enduring actor, though his work was crafted so long ago.