RHODE ISLAND INTERNATIONAL
HORROR FILM FESTIVAL
Phantom of the Opera" Comes to Providence, October
(US) - Directed by Rupert Jullian, 88 minutes at 24
fps. One of the scariest and most influential horror
films of all time, Lon Chaney continues to amaze as
the mysterious Phantom. This gorgeous new print, recently
restored by Alloy's
Orchestra's sister company, Box 5, reproduces the
extremely intricate color scheme of the original release
with elaborate tinting, the experimental 2 strip Technicolor
sequence at the masked ball, and luscious hand tinting.
Combined with Alloy's new score, this astounding film
is as creepy today as it was 75 years ago.
by Chris Justice
"You're standing in the wings,
There you wait for the curtain to fall.
Knowing the terror and holding
You have on us all."
Those are the lyrics from the heavy metal giant Iron
Maiden's timeless classic "Phantom of the Opera"
released in 1980. They were my first introduction to
this timeless ghoul, and the "holding" this
phantom has had on me has lasted ever since. But clearly
I am not alone.
A testament to any great work of art is its pervasiveness
in popular culture, and one of the greatest examples
of such testaments are to Phantom of the Opera (1925).
At least five film remakes have been made since the
original in 1925. The most recent one, released in 2004
and directed by Joel Schumacher, is an adaptation of
Andrew Lloyd Weber's ridiculously successful Broadway
musical. Of course the original source, Gaston Leroux's
1910 novel, first spawned this legendary ghoul. Influenced
by Edgar Allan Poe and Jules Verne, Leroux's writing
was marked by an eclectic mix of mystery, horror, Gothic
romance, fantasy, and action. He weaved all of these
styles into "Phantom."
In the original film version, Lon Chaney, who was primarily
working for MGM but drifted for this film to Universal,
plays the phantom. He knew a gift horse when he saw
one, and the success of horror/fantasy films such as
The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Kaiser, The Beast of
Berlin (in which The Phantom's director, Rupert Julian,
acted as the villain) were fortuitous signs for Phantom's
success. However, the film was almost never made. Julian
prompted several rewrites of the script, and his bullish
nature irked many on the set. Legend has it that Chaney
was responsible for directing some scenes while Julian
was autocratically storming around the set. The original
ending, which found Erik dead at the foot of his organ,
was rewritten to cast the phantom into the streets of
Paris being chased by an angry mob, a decision designed
to spice up the final actions scenes. The film cost
approximately $630,000, including $50,000 in retakes.
The film ultimately allowed Universal to pocket roughly
$540,000 in profits, a notable sum for 1920s cinema.
The story begins in the Paris Opera House, a location
built on catacombs, ancient labyrinths, and torture
chambers. The property is sold and the new owners are
warned of an alleged phantom, which is in infatuated
with an unknown singer named Christine Daae, played
by Mary Philbin. Erik, the phantom, blackmails the famous
diva Carlotta through a series of letters ordering her
to relinquish her role to Christine. When she does,
Christine offers a startling performance, and Erik pledges
his love and fidelity to her. She abandons her lover,
Raul, and vows to "forget all worldly things"
with the phantom. However, after a threat from the phantom
is not followed, the ghoul wreaks havoc on the opera
house. Chaos ensues and Erik eventually seizes Christine
and entraps her in the opera house's dark catacombs.
Once she learns of the phantom's identity by ripping
off his mask (one of the truly legendary scenes in horror),
Erik agrees to free her for one last performance. At
a ballroom dance, Christine reunites with Raul and expresses
her love to him. Raul plans to leave the country with
her, but Erik secretly discovers these plans and abducts
Christine once again. A mysterious Persian reveals himself
to Ledoux of the Parisian Secret Police, and Raul and
Ledoux proceed in an elaborate search for the singer
through the dark hallways of the opera house's depths.
Eventually, the phantom's identity is disclosed, and
he meets his fate on the streets of Paris.
The beauty of Phantom is the volume of its archetypal
themes. First, the story is a classic romance of unrequited
love cast in a beauty vs. the beast narrative, but the
lopsided nature of this love is profoundly tragic because
of Erik's ghastly appearance. Christine does fall for
him. She initially wants to be his "servant",
is seduced by his piano playing, and both are enamored
by the fact that she "brings out the good in him".
Her subservience to him is almost erotic in that she
completely offers herself to the ghoul. The phantom
is also an archetypal ghoul, yet he also carries a Jekyll
and Hyde duality because he represents both the passionate
and beautiful and horrible and evil in everyone. For
every loving stroke of tender feeling he conveys to
Christine, he couples it with another stroke of pure
menace toward another. The love triangle that forms
here between Raul, Christine, and Erik has also been
copied numerous times, and the literal depths Erik will
travel to express his love for Christine are truly profound.
But the film is ahead of its time in so many other thematic
areas. Erik is an asylum refugee cast there because
of his practice of black magic and later determined
to be criminally insane. He plants the seeds for all
future horror figures that were perceived as insane
and clinically institutionalized only to later learn
that they could not be rehabilitated and perhaps never
needed to be. The cruelty of the people who misunderstand
the "ugly" is directly proportionate to the
complexity of the banished one's character. Phantom
does an excellent job of portraying a character that
successfully, at least for a time, can walk the fine
line between insanity and sanity. At times, Erik's passionate
overtures to Christine make him seem far from horrific;
in fact, he seems a character in complete control of
his emotions. He garners sympathy from the most conservative
Furthermore, the film is also a case study in the classic
haunted house tale, although this house is for operas
and not the traditional domesticated abode. Additionally,
the film is a morality tale warning people about the
dangers of excessively pursuing success. Carlotta's
misguided ambitions and the new owner's drive for success
ultimately initiate the phantom's tragic endgame. They
foolishly don't heed the warnings. The film also boasts
an excellently choreographed chase scene at the end,
full of action, drama, and twists and turns.
Finally, Phantom lays the groundwork for an endearing
trademark of modernist cinema: the meta-narrative or
"play within the play". Throughout the film,
alternative performances abound, and viewers obtain
a clear sense of the power art has in these individuals'
lives. Moreover, the number of literary allusions, from
"Faust" to Poe's "Masque of the Red Death"
to Leroux's original novel, emphasizes the importance
of art redefining art. The richness of all of these
themes is one of Phantom's most important legacies.
The set design is also impressive. The setting of an
opera house full of props and stage structures adds
a point of realism to the film that would otherwise
be lost. Here, these ornaments, such as the giant demon's
head, the skull-work, and the hulking lighting equipment,
all seem natural and real. They also permit an elaborate
sense of composition to the film that allows chiaroscuro
lighting to predominate. Erik is constantly cast in
shadow among these forms and figures, and this homage
to German expressionism bifurcates his character into
the duality that he possesses. Because it emanates from
an opera house, one can only expect an eloquent and
melodramatic musical score and lavish costumes to accompany
Erik's passionate orchestrations. In another setting,
this would seem forced. In Phantom, it seems in perfect
Chaney is clearly at his best here, especially since
he appears in a mask for most of the film. His acting
is profound and must be for the film to work. The de-masking
scene is still one of the scariest and shocking scenes
in cinematic history. Most of that horror emanates from
Chaney's body language. He allegedly used putty to raise
his cheekbones, although some claim he had placed disks
in his mouth to raise them. But throughout the film,
Chaney's physical prowess as an actor dominates. The
other actors' fears are also wonderfully cast through
the lens of body language and pure acting.
There is too much to write about this classic. Clearly,
Phantom is one of the greatest silent films ever made.
It is taut with complex themes and fabulously acted,
designed, and written. Modern viewers not used to silent
films will be surprised at how easy it is to watch this
film. And as one of the earliest installments of the
horror genre, Phantom is still one of its best. Indeed,
it's one of the greatest films ever made in any genre.
The prologue of Gaston Leroux's classic text begins
with these chilling words: "The Opera ghost really
existed. He was not, as was long believed, a creature
of the imagination of the artists, the superstition
of the managers, or a product of the absurd and impressionable
brains of the young ladies of the ballet, their mothers,
the box-keepers, the cloak-room attendants or the concierge.
Yes, he existed in flesh and blood, although he assumed
the complete appearance of a real phantom; that is to
say, of a spectral shade."
No words in Western literature have ever resonated with
more truth. And Julian's cinematic masterpiece conveys
this truth on the screen with sheer eloquence. The Phantom
For more information, write RIIFF, P.O. Box 162, Newport,
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