Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Universal Monsters Movie Binge: "The Phantom of the Opera" (1925)

    The Ghost has made the decision to watch-- in the order they were released-- the original Universal Studios Monster movies. The iconic films that set the tone for horror films as we have come to know them. I have-- I believe-- seen all of these films in the entireties before, but I thought something fun and spooky could be gained by taking them all in as we open the book on a new October season of the dim light and shadows. 

     We started with "The Phantom of the Opera," starring Lon Chaney. Released in 1925, this is a fully silent film, and stands on its own, years before the rest of what Universal would create were released. Based on Gaston Leroux's 1910 novel that would gain superstardom as a stage musical nearly a century later, Universal's take on the Opera Ghost is every candlelit bit a monster movie. Lon Chaney, who famously did his own makeup for the Phantom (some of which involved actual fish parts), did so in secret and revealed his look to many on set for the first time during filming. Universal's publicity about the film was also similarly tight-lipped; hiding the Phantom's look from all promotion and saving his unmasking for the film. 

     This end result, shot almost 100 years ago, is dreamlike and hypnotic for many reasons, the least of which is that this film was made so long ago. These actors donned costumes and performed across great sets, of the Paris theater and the Phantom's underground lair, almost one hundred years ago. The prints that exist of this film are grainy, but we should be thankful they exist at all, as this film was very nearly lost to the obscurity of history. The set pieces herein are gorgeous; whether it's the opera and ballet being performed, or the Phantom's taking of Christine Daae down to his musical lair. The horror is also ramped up; the Phantom's famous unmasking scene is the horror the film hinges on, and the Phantom's terrorizing the opera, its guests and Christine is played up to great camp and creepy effect-- the Phantom at points using an air tube to travel under his underwater lake to Raul's boat, at the end taking Christine into a carriage ride filled with shots of a manic and maskless Phantom at the reins.

     Of note watching the film again, I was struck by how much of the imagery popularly associated with the Phantom of the Opera, especially in Andrew Lloyd Weber's stage musical, appears to have originated in this film. From the caped Phantom atop a statue watching Christine and lover Raul on the rooftop, to the Phantom's dressed Skeleton masquerade costume. These happenings may have been described in the book, but it is interesting that the exact look of them seem not to have changed in popular adaptation in close to 100 years. Unique to this film-- spoilers ahead for the remainder of the next two paragraphs only-- is the ending, which was changed. Originally filmed more faithfully to the original novel, with the Phantom dying at his organ after letting Christine go, test audiences did not respond well, and the striking chase scene through the scenes of Paris-- passing Notre Dame and arriving at the Seine where the Phantom is beaten by the mob and thrown into the river-- was filmed and added to appease audiences. 

    Two things stood out, very starkly, about the ending. One is how brutally and ultimately they deal with killing the Phantom, the horror, at the end; beating him to what appears to be death and throwing him in the river. And second, how even with that finality, while we are not shown a body, the possibility of his surviving and emerging from the Seine to terrorize another day is very present. In what appears to have been an effort to avoid showing the violence of what befalls the Phantom, the door was left open for generations of horror film endings that appear to triumph over the monster (or do they?) only to leave the door open for future sequels. 

     The evolution of the Phantom named Erik's mask is also interesting. In the present day, the most commonly associated mask is that popularized by the Lloyd Weber musical, with the simple white mask covering half of Erik's face. The mask in the Chaney film covers the entire face, and is a simple, almost theatrical likeness of a human face that changes to loose cloth (curtainlike?) under the eyes. The understated nature of this mask, with the antique look is uniquely unsettling. 

Lon Chaney in full makeup

     One doesn't have to go far to see how the success of the this film spurred the next installments in the Universal series, and would forever shape horror in film. With the introduction of sound, the film was reworked and rereleased in 1930 with segments of sound and music. While Chaney was unable to be in reshoots as he was by then under contract with MGM, other actors in the film reprised their roles in the reworked film which was released to great success. This reissued film has sadly and apparently been lost to history, but there are clips online of a home video reworking that put pieces of the soundtrack (the soundtrack, which alone has survived) and it does appear that the Phantom-- even while silent in a talking film-- is even more affective, juxtaposed with the sound and music around him. Grossing over a million dollars in 1930, it's clear that this film and its rereleases proved that there was big business in horror. For the purposes of our Universal Monsters Movie Binge, I have decided to only watch the original films; no sequels, remakes or reimaginings (those will come later.) 

Chaney's Phantom at the masquerade. 

     It is clear, watching this 1925 horror smash hit, why it struck such a note with audiences, and why they wanted more. And why Universal readily gave it to the world, and made history. 

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