The Phantom of the Opera is one of the second-division horror archetypes, not up there with Frankenstein, Dracula and Dr Jekyll but sufficiently well-known for Gremlins 2 to take the piss out of it. "Acid, Do Not Throw In Face." Like Sweeney Todd, he's swimming in the general consciousness without many people knowing his origins. Curiously both Phantom of the Opera and Sweeney Todd have been made into musicals, by Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Stephen Sondheim respectively, that have since been re-adapted back into movies. The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was luckier with his director, though. He got Tim Burton instead of Joel Schumacher. The Phantom of the Opera has had his share of movie adaptations, but apparently Lon Chaney's silent version is generally regarded as the best of them. Apparently it has two versions: the 1925 original and a 1929 re-release that cut some scenes and added new specially filmed material. This included a sound sequence with opera star Mary Fabian singing as Carlotta. I can't prove that it's the original I just saw, but that won't stop me reviewing it!
Basically it's great. I've had problems with silent movies in the past, but this is much more accessible than the likes of Nosferatu and Metropolis. It's not the work of mad Germans but instead a Hollywood product and reassuringly character-based. This helps a lot, especially since silent film, to be honest, isn't a particularly good medium for storytelling. Its pace is fast and though it hardly ever changes camera position (I counted no zooms and one barely detectable pan throughout the whole film) there's plenty of quick cutting. What's more, the paucity of dialogue lets the story zoom along. The film runs at 73 minutes and if anything is overplotted. Some of the Phantom's deathtraps towards the end could perhaps have been amalgamated.
The acting is a pleasant surprise. It's stylised, but a million miles away from the grotesquery of, say, Gustav von Wangenheim in Nosferatu. It's not so broad that subtlety is obliterated. Intead there's a light touch in evidence, which probably won't make you laugh but might raise a smile. Only Mary Philbin and, ironically, Lon Chaney himself ever get too stagey (the former overdoing the reeling and staggering, and the latter simply going overboard) and even those two are usually okay and have some excellent moments. I particularly enjoyed the Phantom's final gesture of defiance.
The Phantom himself is interesting. It's a comedy moment when he reveals that his real name is (wait for it)... Erik. However this very un-Gallic name would have made him an outsider in Paris even before he took to living beneath the Opera House and killing people. He has a childlike worldview in which ugly = evil and Mary Philbin's Christine might reciprocate his love after being practically kidnapped. He's a talented musician and endearing in his own monstrous way. We also never learn why he looks so horrible. Acid is the usual explanation in Phantom of the Opera movies, but Lon Chaney's make-up doesn't suggest acid burns to me. In fact it seems that as in Gaston Leroux's original novel, he's been deformed since birth.
I liked his mask too. Most Phantoms have a blank Pierrot half-mask, but Chaney has a pretty doll-thing with a fringe that hides his mouth. If I looked like him, I'd wear that mask too. By avoiding the obvious Scary Mask option, the film achieves a realistic effect that's much spookier than some Halloween job would have been. When Mary Philbin reaches to take it off, you're in no doubt whatsoever that she shouldn't be doing this. Shortly afterwards, she writes a note that has a similar "oh fuck" effect on the audience. In fact, as horror this film is surprisingly effective. It's never frightening, but it has an ominous atmosphere and might even creep you out at a couple of points. When Lon Chaney commits murder it's nothing special, but when he smoothly returns to Mary Philbin as if nothing's happened... brrrrrr. There's also a nod to Poe's Masque of the Red Death, which has no relevance to anything but is cool anyway.
Since this is a silent movie, much exposition is delivered through notes, letters and newspaper headlines. This reported storytelling ("tell, don't show") makes its own atmosphere and occasionally creates unusual effects. Philbin hears the Phantom speak, but we don't. Instead we see the following caption: "From hidden places beyond the walls a melodious voice, like that of an angel, spoke to her." I defy any voice actor to play that scene and creep me out with that sentence's simple elegance.
A similar kind of understatement also helps the scenes between Philbin and her love, the Vicomte Raoul de Chagny played by Norman Kerry. Cutting someone dead in a letter, without even the courtesy of saying it to their face, not only adds another layer of cruelty but helps to undercut the silent acting style and makes the scene more poignant.
Mind you, there are a few unintended laughs. Lip-reading the actors adds another dimension to their scenes, but occasionally their words contradict the dialogue captions. There's also an unfortunate double entendre. "Don't worry, my dear Brother - nothing shall interfere with our love." Ooo-er. Heh heh.
The film looks great. The static camera allows some beautifully framed shots, and there's plenty of spectacle on view. The Paris Opera House is huge, I particularly liked the backstage set with the dragon mouth and the underground river looks fantastic. The orchestral soundtrack that one generally gets with silent films is appropriate for an opera setting, especially when a choral element is added for the on-stage singing. The picture quality is poor (on my DVD at least), but otherwise this is a silent movie for people who hate silent movies. Much more fun than I'd expected.