Tuesday, 26 May 2015
Phantom of the Opera (1925)
The unmasking of the Phantom in this, the first English-language screen adaptation, is considered one of the great moments of cinematic horror. Lon Chaney's self-devised makeup was reportedly so repellent that the camera actually lost focus on the shot. Mill Creek have of course spoiled the moment by whacking him on the cover of the DVD box, though I guess the argument can be made that you shouldn't need to worry about spoiling a 90 year old movie.
In any case, this is apparently the most faithful screen adaptation of the novel. Details are changed, but the overall thrust and tone is in keeping with that of the book. This is an important note, as later works tended to draw on and extend elements introduced in the 1943 version of the film, starring Claude Rains. The Phantom's deformity being the result of an injury, for instance, is an invention of the WW2-era film. In this movie, and in the book, he has been disfigured since birth.
Now that specific detail isn't in and of itself a big deal but it is symptomatic of a wider tonal shift: later adaptations have cast the Phantom in a more and more sympathetic/tragic light. Make no mistake though: in the original book, and in this film, he's most definitely a villain. He murders those who threaten to reveal him and uses the threat of further violence to force a woman to agree to marry him, despite the fact that she loves another.
I wonder if (ironically, given the word "Opera" in the title) it was easier to make the Phantom wicked because this is a silent film. We're told he has 'the voice of an Angel', but of course we only ever see his face and his actions, both of which are repellent. If he were just a beautiful, disembodied voice for the first act, we might well be much more sympathetic to him when he finally appears.
These musings aside, how is the film? Well, honestly I think it is a bit too long. It starts to run out of steam around the halfway mark and the climactic "marry me or I will blow up your lover and everyone else in the Opera House" sequence is particularly drawn out. There are good elements, though. I've already mentioned Chaney's make-up work, and the film has other striking visual components. The use of shadow is strong, for instance, and there's a Masquerade scene shot in an early form of Technicolor, where the Phantom appears as the Read Death. I found that to be a striking sequence.
Overall, I'd probably say this one is principally of interest to film geeks. The average modern movie watcher is likely to find it too slow-paced to entertain.