by Steve Habrat
If there is one thing that Universal Studios can do, it’s iconic monsters. In 1923, the studio released The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a Lon Chaney vehicle that was the first monster movie off their assembly line. Two years later, Universal followed up the successful The Hunchback of Notre Dame with director Rupert Julian’s classic The Phantom of the Opera, another Chaney picture that kicked off the monster craze that really hit its stride with 1931’s Dracula and Frankenstein. Based upon Gaston Leroux’s novel, The Phantom of the Opera is perhaps one of the best entries in Universal’s monster series—a grand and luxurious gothic tale rich with heavy shadows, spooky snaking passageways, and ink-black underground rivers. The Phantom of the Opera’s million-dollar sets will certainly keep the viewer in a perpetual state of awe, but it’s a small and simple sequence of early color that to this day makes the viewer sit up and take notice. Roaming around all the spectacular sets and flashy color is Chaney’s skull-faced phantom Erik, a spectral figure that seems to be everywhere and nowhere all at once. Often overlooked even by the studio that released it (the film was glaringly absent from the most recent Blu-ray box set and released in a stand-alone edition), The Phantom of the Opera is arguably the best monster movie to come from Universal Studios. And you know what? It’s probably the most horrifying Universal monster movie.
The Phantom of the Opera opens in the Paris Opera House, with the original management in the final stages of signing the grand building over to enthusiastic new managers. Before the original managers depart, they warn the newcomers of a Phantom that terrorizes the opera house. The new managers laugh off the warnings and think nothing more of the eerie stories. The new management soon realizes that the stories of the Phantom may have some truth when opera prima donna Mme. Carlotta (played by Virginia Pearson) brings a letter that appears to be written by the Phantom to their attention. The letter demands that rising opera star Christine Daae (played by Mary Philbin) be able to sing the role of Marguerite. The managers do as the Phantom instructs, but when he makes the same demands again, they ignore him despite his warnings of grave consequences. That night, a horrific accident strikes the theater and leaves the audience in chaos. In the thick of the violence, Christine is abducted by a shadowy figure that whisks her off into the winding catacombs underneath the opera house. Deep in the shadows, the shadowy figure reveals himself as Erik (played by Lon Chaney), a masked man who declares his love for Christine. Ignoring his warnings about touching his mask, Christine decides to see what Erik really looks like, enraging him enough to make her his prisoner. Christine’s mysterious disappearance alerts her lover, Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (played by Norman Kerry), who races to find Christine before its too late.
Through its grandiose set design and Expressionist approach, The Phantom of the Opera gets very far on its gothic mood and dank atmosphere. It ushers us into a world of darkness, winding through halls of mirrors, torture chambers, heat rooms, and a lair that features a dusty old organ for our monster to pound away at like a maniac. The film lacks the cartoonish exaggeration of such films as Nosferatu or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but it does stand as an early blueprint for Universal’s other gothic efforts that would accompany the beginning of the 1930s. Director Julian seems to be aware of the quality of his sets, and he doesn’t miss an opportunity to let us explore these catacombs. After a while, you feel like you’ve stepped through the picture and are actually wandering them yourself, and with all of the shifting shadows, you start to wonder if there is more haunting these halls than a psychotic Phantom. This supernatural sensation is carried over into the intertitles, which speak about torture chambers and the opera guests being completely oblivious of the unspeakable horrors that took place in those brick and mortar tombs just below their feet. And then there is the Phantom himself, who seems to be capable of appearing out of thin air and then disappearing in the blink of an eye. No room or corridor seems off limits, which suggests supernatural capabilities despite the fact that Julian shows us all the smoke and mirrors.
Like all the great silent horror films, The Phantom of the Opera features an untouchable performance from its main headlining star, which in the case happens to be famed silent actor Lon Chaney as Erik, the antagonist of the opera house. While many different actors have tried to step into the role of the phantom, not one of them was capable of bringing the glowering madness that Chaney brought to the role. Underneath thick strokes of make-up that he applied, Chaney brings to life a psychopath who drools through curled lips over a young girl petrified by his physical appearance. When seen in shadows, your imagination works overtime filling in the details of his outline. Hidden behind his featureless mask, he seems harmless enough even if he did just drop a chandelier onto a room full of people, spreading his arms in celebration of his liar, and he appears unhinged as he hammers out tunes on his organ. When we finally get a look at that unforgettable face, it gapes in surprise, enraged that his love would dare try to rip that mask from his hideous face. With sunken eyes, rotten teeth, and protruding cheekbones, he resembles a malicious skeleton that points a finger down at the defeated Christine. He bellows about making her his slave and becomes almost bat-like in the way he hovers over her with his cape resembling wings. You won’t be able to take your eyes off of him, even if you would really like to.
Underneath the crushing sets, the busy frames filled with thousands of extras, and the scene-stealing Chaney, the supporting actors struggle to stand out. Philbin’s Christine is pretty enough and she certainly plays up the damsel-in-distress, but you almost forget to pay attention to her when Chaney’s Erik bears down on her. She’s overly melodramatic when she clings to her lover and begs him to save her from the Phantom. Kerry is fine enough of the hero who races to reach Christine, but when he is stuck in the same scene as Arthur Edmund Carewe’s Ledoux, they become interchangeable. Set apart from Kerry, Carewe’s Ledoux is misleadingly sinister as he wanders the catacombs searching for the Phantom. It’s best not to reveal the secret to his character, but just know that the minor twist is pretty interesting. Virginia Pearson owns the room as the imposing prima donna revolted by the Phantom’s demands, and Bernard Siegel adds a bit of unnecessary slapstick comedy as the stagehand Joseph Buquet.
Amidst the gargantuan scope of the picture, The Phantom of the Opera really dazzles with a small color segment that finds Chaney’s Erik crashing an opera party. Dressed in blood red and donning a skull mask, Chaney struts up and down a grand staircase ranting about the ‘Red-Death’ and the blind eye that the guests cast to the suffering that took place in the torture chambers below them. It’s an absolutely amazing scene that pops in harsh reds and deep blacks. Another astounding moment is when the massive chandelier that dangles over the audience’s heads comes plunging down. For 1925, the scene is surprisingly violent, only to be followed up with a shot of a woman getting trampled to death as theatergoers scrambling for their lives. In the final moments of the film, Julian springs one more classic surprise. We find Chaney’s Phantom cornered by a bloodthirsty mob in the streets of Paris. Knowing that he is doomed to die, he unleashes one more surprise on the mob that gives him a good belly laugh. It’s an unforgettable climax that sends a deep chill. Overall, despite a notoriously bad shoot and studio interference, The Phantom of the Opera is a creepy, stylish, and consistent monster movie that deserves to be called a classic. Give even more credit to Chaney, who created one of the most recognizable fiends in monster movie history.
The Phantom of the Opera is available on Blu-ray and DVD.