"Feast your eyes! Glut your soul on my accursed ugliness!"
Classic horror from Universal is one of the finest and most romanticized genres in all of film. It has been said that everybody, deep down, likes to be scared and Universal was more than willing to take advantage of this idea. They went about this by taking steady advantage of the greatest Hollywood scary man in history, the magnificent Lon Chaney. In The Phantom of the Opera an audience is reminded that silent horror is the most effective horror and that Lon Chaney is a brilliant craftsman of anything frightening.
What makes silent horror work is the fact that there are not vocals to focus on. The audience is forced to focus mainly on the intended aspects of the story. In The Phantom of the Opera, the intended aspect was the horrific and grotesque make up of the leading man. Chaney was famously given permission to design and apply his own make up for his role as the Phantom.
Rather than creating a debonair silhouette of his sourced material, he kept the look very similar to what Gaston Leroux originally described. Chaney painted black circles around his eyes and nostrils for an enlarged look. He also pinned back the tip of his nose using piano wire (ouch). To top that off, a set of twisted and mangled false teeth were added to ensure a frightening skull-like appearance. According to reports, the test audience was so shocked, disgusted and terrified by Chaney’s Phantom that the majority screamed loudly with some even passing out from fright.
Though the unveiling of the Phantom’s face is the most famous part of The Phantom of the Opera, this is also a film with some significant historical merit. In my favorite scene, the Bal Masqué scene, the viewers are treated to some of the earliest usage of Technicolor in film. The Phantom is covered in a haunting, blood-red costume that pops out of the scene like a firework against the night sky. The difference is truly that dramatic, and that is what makes the use of color work. Not that the film was otherwise completely colorless. Like a lot of silent films from the time, the majority of scenes were tinted to ensure the proper emotional response.
Another interesting thing about The Phantom is that it practically switched directors after it was completed. Lon Chaney and the cast were constantly having arguments with their director, Rupert Julian. After a negative screen test, Julian was let go and the film was subject to drastic change; including a totally new ending. Producer Carl Laemmle then brought in Edward Sedgwick to reshoot key scenes.
No, this is not as good, interesting, scary or famous as the film that it is often compared to, Nosferatu. But it is an existing documentation of Lon Chaney’s brilliance, and Universal’s knack for making exceptional horror films. This is not a film that you should skip because it is silent. On the other hand, it is not a film that you should seek out if you are looking for Nosferatu. All in all, I liked The Phantom of Opera primarily for Cheney’s performance and the eye-pleasing colored scene.
The Phantom of the Opera: C+