Horror Is Universal: “The Phantom of the Opera (1925)”

As you probably know, the story of a disfigured musical genius who lurks beneath the Paris Opera House and becomes enamoured with the chorus girl he’s training was not invented in the 80s by Andrew Lloyd Webber. While the musical is by far the most famous adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel, it certainly wasn’t the first to achieve prominence. That would be this version, Universal’s 1925 prestige picture that launched its journey into the business of making horror films. Phantom, as we will see, laid the groundwork for many of the filmmaking elements that would characterize subsequent Universal Horror. Anchored by the iconic design and performance of its lead character, it’s a film that expertly builds a foreboding atmosphere which then explodes into shock and spectacle.

The Plot: For months, the Paris Opera House has been haunted by the presence of a shadowy, unpredictable figure. Dubbed “the Phantom” or “the opera ghost,” he can seemingly make the building itself bend to his will and cause chaos if his esoteric demands are not met. Somehow all his plans revolve around Christine Daae (Mary Philbin), an innocent singer who has risen to become the opera house’s top performer thanks to the Phantom’s tutelage and backstage meddling. Viscount Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry) wants Christine to marry him, but while she loves him back, she has already pledged herself to her unseen master. Things go haywire when the Phantom makes good on his promise to appear in person and demand Christine’s love, kidnapping her after a performance gone wrong. He reveals himself as Erik (Lon Chaney), a talented but hideously deformed composer who wants Christine to stay underground with him forever. Christine escapes and reunites with Raoul, and together they plan to flee the country. But surviving the jealous wrath of the Phantom isn’t going to be as easy as they think…

Phantom was Universal’s big investment for 1925, with a $2 million budget, and you can see that money all over the screen. Something I’m gonna say a lot in regards to the earlier films here is “This is really impressive for the time.” Phantom is no exception: while I wouldn’t call it a sweeping epic, you can tell that a lot of money went into the production. The most impressive part is the Paris Opera House auditorium set, which was built specifically for this film and stayed on Universal’s backlot until 2014. It was even the first film set to be built with steel girders set in concrete, because it needed to hold so many extras. It’s not just the sets that are impressive for the 20s, but several of the effects as well. The infamous falling chandelier stunt, an integral part of the Phantom experience, is pulled off here with surprising success. You can see how the chandelier is rigged to drop from the ceiling by a rope, and the quick cut from the shot of the chandelier in motion to the shot of it shattered on the floor is quite effective.

While we’re on the subject of camerawork, I do want to mention that I love the way this film is shot. I’ve wondered if anyone involved with the production had seen Nosferatu, because a lot of the staging and film tricks used here remind me of that movie. I’m mainly referring to Phantom‘s reliance on shadows and silhouettes to build a creepy atmosphere. The Phantom only appears as a shadow on the wall in the first half of the film, to conceal what Chaney’s makeup will look like. While it’s done for practical reasons, it also makes for a cool, creepy visual. At the point in the story where we don’t know exactly what the Phantom is yet, it feeds into the idea of him as this mysterious, ephemeral force that you can’t lay eyes on. Shadows are also used to cover up some of the film’s more gruesome moments: there’s a great shot where, as a stagehand pulls up a curtain, you see the curtain’s shadow rise in the background to reveal the shadow of a hanged man. You’re left to imagine exactly what the stagehand sees and what happened beforehand, which in a way is creepier than if the film had just tossed a corpse at you.

As good as Phantom is, it’s a film where the second half is better than the first half. Silent film might not be the best medium in which to tell this story, and I don’t just say that because the plot revolves around singing. There are more differences between silent films and talkies than you might realize. Without sound to help you convey information, you have to rely on body language to get your point across. That results in a lot of over-the-top acting with exaggerated gestures and facial expressions, many of which feel out of place in a serious film like this. The biggest offender here is the character of Carlotta (Virginia Pearson, who’s instead credited as “Carlotta’s Mother” in some cuts of the film), who hams it up like mad in her two big scenes. Slapstick comedy is also something you seem to find often in silent films, probably due to the success of comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Phantom has a brief comedy sequence in the first act where minor characters are popping in and out of a trap door as they chase each other around. It’s not a bad scene in and of itself, but it feels strange coming on the heels of the scene where we get a morbid description of what the Phantom allegedly looks like. Luckily the film dispenses with all of that by around the halfway point, which means the second half is dominated by the moody atmosphere and the performances of the three leads.

Real talk: the leads in this movie give some of the best silent film performances I’ve ever seen. I love all of them to bits. Norman Kerry’s Raoul is quiet, dignified, concerned and caring. Mary Philbin’s performance musters up all the wide-eyed, frozen terror that anyone would feel in Christine’s shoes. This is no sweeping Gothic romance; this is a hostage situation. But Chaney is the star of the show, of course, and what a performance he gives.

From the moment Erik first appears on screen, his hand trembling with fear as he tries to touch Christine’s shoulder, Chaney’s physical performance is fascinating to watch. This incarnation of the Phantom really feels like a man who has to make a conscious effort to act like a normal person. His initial behavior around Christine is exaggerated in how gentle they are, like he’s trying to make himself look as unintimidating as possible. At the same time, however, he keeps defaulting back to cold, statuesque postures as though he can’t stop himself. He wants to be charming and charismatic, but his own instincts are working against him.

Erik and Christine’s journey into the catacombs beneath the opera house stands out as an exercise in rapidly escalating creepiness. From the two masks he wears in this version to the coffin he sleeps in to Christine’s discovery of the custom-made outfits and accessories he’s procured for her, the film peels back the layers of mystique and shows us that we’re dealing with someone a lot scarier than just a ghost. It’s a ticking timebomb of a sequence, counting down to the moment when Christine sneaks up behind the Phantom, pulls off his mask and…well…

Look at that. Just look at that! Forget being impressive for the time, this is still impressive almost ninety years later. It’s even more impressive when you know that Chaney designed and applied all of this himself. The skull-like features were created by using black paint on his eye sockets and nostrils, and he pulled up the tip of his nose to give it that misshapen look. Not only did Chaney put all of this on, he managed to keep it a secret from pretty much everyone until the cameras were rolling. It’s been said that people at the premiere of this movie screamed and fainted at the sight of this makeup, and I believe it. It’s a gruesome payoff to all the foreboding buildup that the film has given us.

Once you get past the unmasking scene, all bets are off and it’s a rush to the finish line. The film turns from a Gothic mystery into an action thriller of chases, kidnappings, murders and narrow escapes. The best way to demonstrate the shift is to discuss how the character of the Phantom changes in this latter section of the film. He has his moments of sympathy now and then, but ultimately he’s a straightforward villain rather than the tragic figure modern viewers are more familiar with. His backstory is that he’s an insane criminal with knowledge of “the black art” who’s escaped from Devil’s Island. When he realizes that Christine isn’t going to submit to him anymore, he goes full laughing mad and is ready to not only kill Raoul but blow up the entire opera house unless she agrees to stay with him. Some of this stuff is in Leroux’s book, some of it isn’t. But the moment that gets taken out of this adaptation, one which is so important to the climax, is the moment where Erik decides to let Christine and Raoul leave together. Instead we get an action sequence where Christine has to be saved from the Phantom, who’s got her locked in a carriage as he flees from a mob hunting him down. Apparently the book’s ending was originally going to be used, but the studio wanted something more dramatic.

Does the changed ending and the characterization of the Phantom harm the story? I don’t think so. In fact, I think they work perfectly well for the kind of movie that Phantom wants to be. It sets out to have big scares, shocking twists and a scary villain, and it has all of those to great effect. It’s not a perfect adaptation, but it’s a damn good film in its own right.

Final Rating

Rating: 4 out of 5.

1925’s Phantom of the Opera is a triumph of early filmmaking with its ambitious scale and elaborate effects. Although its grim tone is somewhat hampered by the tropes and techniques common in old silent film, it finds its footing in the second half and becomes an effective action thriller with horror elements. The main attraction, of course, is Lon Chaney’s tragic yet terrifying performance as the eponymous Phantom, and his chilling appearance is the first great example of horror makeup in film. While the story and characters are simplified from Leroux’s novel, it’s still one of the more accurate adaptations and one of the most influential. In fact, considering how the musical was partially inspired by this film, it may very well be the most influential Phantom adaptation of all time.

Universal made a lot of money with Phantom, enough money to fund several lower-budget projects. And since doing a horror film worked out so well, why not make some more? So the studio got to work. Six years would pass before audiences saw the end results, but they would be well worth the wait.

UP NEXT: Dracula (1931)

One more thing: if you want to watch The Phantom of the Opera for yourself, you’re in luck, because it’s in the public domain! You can find a few different versions on Archive.org and on YouTube. I found a nice high-quality copy to use for my viewing, which I’ll link below this paragraph.

Enjoy the film, and I’ll see you next time!

— Dana

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