'Phantom' Still Shocks, Surprises, And Delights After 90 Years | Texas Public Radio

'Phantom' Still Shocks, Surprises, And Delights After 90 Years

Oct 1, 2015

Lon Chaney, man of 1,000 faces, as The Phantom of the Opera.
Credit Kino Lorber

2015 marks the 90th anniversary of the release of seminal American horror/thriller, The Phantom of the Opera starring Lon Chaney. The film stands as a hallmark of both horror film and silent cinema, and as a survivor of the many mishaps and hardships that befell many other films of the era. Today, it continues to thrill audiences.

This fall, Kino Lorber delivers a terrific two-disc Blu-ray set which fans of the film will enjoy as they dig in to the treasure trove of special features, and those newly arrived to the film can enjoy for the magnificent presentation and contextualizing available in the special features.

Lon Chaney, in both his make-up and performance as Erik, remains such a recognizable concept that The Phantom of the Opera has endured in the popular imagination while the film’s contemporaries have faded, surviving mostly in the domain of serious film buffs and historians. The film stamped itself onto the zeitgeist thanks not just to the film’s perennial Halloween showings, but because it brought audiences something both novel and universal in its shadowy tale of outsiders and the chilling wonder of the unknown.  

Universal Studios continues to include the Chaney depiction of the character and the film as part of their popular Universal Monsters brand, which includes everything from Phantom to This Island Earth.  However, the movie itself has suffered a sort of abandonment from Universal.  A recent boxed set of Universal Monster classics skipped the Chaney version of Phantom and instead included a brilliantly restored but ultimately disappointing 1943 version of the story starring Claude Rains. Universal will license a Phantom action figure, but fans are out of luck when it comes time to get a Universal Studios approved Blu-ray.

The absence of the movie in the collection dates back to the 1950s, when the studio failed to renew the copyright on Phantom of the Opera.  Fortunately, with the advent of the VCR and home video, access to the film hasn’t been difficult to obtain. I landed my first copy from a bin of VHS tapes at a Walmart circa 1990 (thanks for floating me the $7, Mom!).  That videotape contained no audio, showed the movie in stark black and white, and had been transferred to the tape on Long Play - meaning it wasn’t the best quality picture, even for VHS.  

Still, I fell in love with the film.

Based on the novel by Gaston Leroux, the narrative of Phantom remains compelling. The film distills the story that’s flamed the imagination enough to survive in a multitude of forms over the 100+ years since its initial publication, but there’s no question that, much like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s synth-tastic musical, it’s its own thing. This movie version has endured long beyond the pantomime acting techniques, the static camera work, and other dated features and continues to win over new devotees, who embrace the triangle of Christine, Raoul and Erik.

Our tale: Someone or something dwells in the shadows and the abandoned cellars of the Paris Opera House. This apparition has learned to blackmail the longtime managers and spook the performers and stagehands enough that their curiosity does not disrupt the Phantom’s machinations. The cellars beneath the Opera House once served as a macabre dungeon, and many people were tortured or died beneath the building during the Second Revolution, keeping curiosity seekers at bay. Meanwhile, ingenue opera performer Christine Daaé had begun to rival the diva Carlotta, her skill reaching new heights thanks to lessons given by a mysterious teacher she has never seen. Unaware of her shadowy instructor, the gallant Raoul, a nobleman and soldier, courts Christine and is ready to ask for her hand.

Of course the instructor turns out to be The Phantom, or the man known as Erik, a mad killer once condemned to Devil’s Island, now escaped.  In his madness, Erik believes Christine his possession, and, indeed, the whole of the Opera House.  Christine is torn between her fear of the man and the thrall he has over her thanks to her gratitude.  All this comes to a head when The Phantom’s wish for Christine to play the lead is rebuffed and he drops a chandelier upon the audience, killing many.

And then things get weird.

For those of us who have enjoyed the film but remain aware of how films could be cut and recut during the golden silent era and the transition to talkies, Kino Lorber has gone above and beyond with their 2015 Blu-ray release of Phantom of the Opera. Arriving in a 2-disc set, your options for experiencing the film are positively overwhelming.  

Disc One contains:

  • the 1929 cut of the movie at two frame rates, 20 and 24 fps
  • three possible scores to choose from
  • an audio commentary track by film historian and Lon Chaney enthusiast Jon Mirsalis

Disc Two features:  

  • the original 1925 cut transferred from 16mm (all 35mm prints are thought lost)
  • a legit trailer for the movie from the 1925 release
  • a pair of 1920’s-era tour short films of Paris
  • the original script
  • curiously, a cut of the film from the 1929/1930 re-release that featured audio inserted into the picture.  But as the audio cut only survives in pieces and the audio tracks do survive, it’s an interesting mish-mash of film running short at 53 minutes and missing crucial scenes

I believe the cut I’m most familiar with is the one from 1925, but I confess it’s been years since I sat down and watched the movie straight through. To further muddy my recollections, I did read the novel long ago, so I’m not sure where the memories start to meld.

Kino Lorber put their real efforts into working with the 1929 cut as it’s “the 35mm Eastman print,” which in and of itself is a mystery as no one is quite certain of the purpose of the print. It doesn’t synch to the 1929/1930 sound release and does not feature title cards that suggest it’s for international release as all cards are in English.  So… who knows? The Phantom knows, I assume.  

While the 1929 cut feels marginally more modern, featuring fewer title cards and less setup, it does lack some of the stronger storytelling of the 1925 version.  The original cut includes important expository scenes, particularly around the investigation of the Phantom, as well as a bit more drama to the Raoul/Christine/Erik love triangle, and more clarity surrounding supporting characters. The 1929 version still carries itself just fine in regards to story and is visually astonishing, thus worth your attention. It’s an absolute treat to see the film on Blu-ray and see the detail, color (yes, color!) expressions of the actors and even the wear on the film.  

My level-setting screening of choice was the 20 frame per second version featuring the Gabriel Thibaudeau score, which also included excerpts from Charles Gounod’s opera Faust, the primary opera occurring during the events of the story.  

Seen on modern televisions and from the 35mm print, the scenery and set design of the film is astounding and at a scale that, for 1925, seems a bit difficult to believe until you realize what some of the spectacle films really looked like, such as Intolerance or Metropolis. The attention to detail in Universal’s recreation of both the grand stairway of the Opera House and in the performance hall remain amazing, and the kind of work that went into building such a location answers the question as to why it was kept and re-used for so many years. The cellars and underworld home of Erik stand in steep contrast to the glamor of the upperworld, giving way to the gothic imagination of man-made caves, canals and deadly traps, all in grand scale, though not so cob-webbed and dusty as they might have been in a post Tod Browning’s Dracula world.

Exteriors include the Opera House itself and the streets of Paris, shot on the Universal backlot and including the Notre Dame set where Chaney had portrayed Quasimodo.

But even against the magnificent backdrops, it’s Chaney’s performance that’s the show-stopper. The combination of his presence and his ghoulish look and portrayal manage to transform the movie into something far greater than it needed to be and propels the character to iconic status. Chaney’s Erik is quite mad, but brilliant, and the actor manages to swing deftly between the controlled, theatrically eloquent Erik and the ranting maniac he can become.  

Many film buffs are already aware of the transformations Chaney put himself through for his roles, and reading about this make-up in a 70s-era Movie Monster book as a kid was where I first heard about the work behind the scenes that occurs in order for the magic to happen on film. And, really, Chaney’s make-up work remains seamless and deeply effective, as believable today as ever.

It may be harder to praise the rest of the cast to the same degree, but we’re talking about Chaney, a master of the silent film acting craft.  Mary Philbin seems almost in a dream-state as Christine, but there’s not a character to necessarily get excited about, more of a concept of the damsel in deep distress. And Norman Kerry, while stolid and handsome as Raoul, is never quite as interesting as Arthur Edmund Carewe’s mysterious Ledoux.  

These days you can see the film in clips and full length on YouTube, Amazon Streaming or Netflix. It’s out there for the viewing. But many of those prints are of less than archival quality, lack much in the way of bonus features, or even a score.  In the worst case scenarios, someone tries to synch the Webber musical to the film.

The Red Death.
Credit Kino Lorber

None of that is going to give you quite the same experience as a high-end display such as the one on Disc One of the Kino Lorber set. The tinting of scenes is well reproduced and enhances the experience tremendously, and the two-tone Technicolor scene of the Masque Ball and Chaney’s chilling arrival dressed as The Red Death, a bright scarlet figure among the less enhanced masses, is another great moment in cinema contained in the film. In addition, some scenes have been manually re-touched to recreate the Handschiegl color process to stunning effect.  

As good as the sets are, the cinematography really does play well with light and shadow, the shapes of the sets and capturing the grand scale of the enterprise.

As mentioned, the set contains a wide variety of extras, all of which are pretty terrific.  The commentary by Jon Marsalis is a must-listen for any film buff as he takes a deep dive into the history of the film and the life and career of Lon Chaney.  And, while the 1925 cut is not as meticulously maintained as that 1929 print, viewing the film (yeah, I went ahead and watched both) does present the viewer with a comparison point and, I think, a richer experience of the film and its history.

It’s perhaps a poignant point that, just last year, in order to make room for modern facilities, Universal Studios quietly destroyed the famous opera house stage that stood for 90 years and received use as recently as the 2011 production of the The Muppets, (the set was supposed to have been preserved, but fans online are doubting).  With so much film history continually lost, intentionally or otherwise, it’s very lucky we have not just prints available, but that well-curated collections such as this one from Kino Lorber to make the film available.

That said, you don’t have to be a film history or monster movie completionist to check this one out. The Phantom of the Opera is a blockbuster of its era, a crowd-pleaser, and a lot of fun from beginning to end.  While the movie does not go for the visceral in the same way as modern horror films, there’s no question of the drama and melodrama that drive the movie and make it a thrilling spectacle no matter when you see the film.

It’s great to see so many older movies receiving high-end treatment and high-resolution home viewing driving both access to and preservation of these films.  As Halloween approaches, now is a great time to go deep beneath the Paris Opera House (or high above it!) and enjoy the weird story of The Phantom!

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