Sunday, 15 April 2012

The horror… The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

I don't enjoy most modern horror films. The genre's played out for me and I just don’t want to be “horrified” anymore, in spite of all that time growing up with Hammer and 70’s devil-rousers such as The Exorcist, The Sentinel, The Omen…The horror of it all was once strangely re-assuring and now it’s jarring... maybe cine-shock just wears off after repeated exposure?

One thing’s for sure, psychological tends to work better than physical (at least if you’re over 14) and I would venture that Dead of Night, The Haunting and The Others are longer lasting because of their restraint and focus on mood not gore.

There are numerous silent horror films that have stood the test of time but would I include one of Lon Chaney’s most famous in that list?

The man of a thousand faces had a career spanning two decades until his death aged only 47 in 1930. From what I can see he was a tremendous actor who was willing to endure almost any amount of physical discomfort in the making of a film (Christian Bale you are a lightweight...).

In The Phantom of the Opera he wears what looks like a very painful make-up which pulls his nose up (using wire) whilst his mouth is stretched wide to create the impression of a face that had been born malformed (as in Gaston Leroux’s original book).

It looks very uncomfortable but that is a key part of the mix in this great, pure-play, gothic adventure that could have been diminished by so many remakes, reworkings and the music of the night…

Directed by Rupert Julian in 1925, The Phantom of the Opera has not fared well over the years and is still some way short of a full restoration. I bought the excellent Carlton double DVD set which features no less than three versions of the film, a poor quality full length version from 1925, the 78 minute, part-talkie re-release from 1929 and a good quality 91 minute silent version from the same year. The later version featured some new shots and actors just to confuse things further.

Watching the 91 minute version first, I was impressed by the immensity and detail of the sets that took L’Opera Paris and exaggerated it… just a bit! In these opulent settings we see the well-healed audience arrive to view the ballet. All is on a grand scale and the ballet dancers flow across the stage in motion speed-corrected glory.

After the show they dance around the theatre workers like hyper-active nymphs, sharing stories of the mysterious figure haunting the opera house. The Phantom… who is gradually revealed through shadows, flapping capes and glimpses of his all too solid form.

This figure begins to exert a greater influence on events as he threatens the opera singer he doesn’t like Carlotta (Virginia Pearson in the original version) so that the one he does, Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin) can take her part. Christine duly takes the role and sings the house down.

After her performance she begins to hear a mysterious and compelling voice talking to her through the wall of her dressing room…urging her to join him, and beginning to control her. Another threatening note arrives before the performance of Faust, but Carlotta is determined and takes to the stage only to meet with misfortune after a massive chandelier falls crushing some of the audience.

Now the Phantom takes more direct action and abducts Christine down into the ancient cellar rooms where he keeps his well-appointed lair.

Frightened but emboldened by his keenness for her, Christine cannot resist sneaking up on the Phantom whilst he plays the organ and gently slipping off his mask. Enraged he turns round toward the camera revealing a genuinely horrific face! It was alledgedly at this point when many original audience members feinted and it is still shocking today.

Chaney had made himself up really well but he’s also acting through all this and it is this that makes the monster real and as with all the best of his kind, slightly sympathetic. But… he can’t make Christine love him and she is allowed to return to her world on the understanding that she tells no one of what she has seen and that she does not see her beau Raoul (Norman Kerry) .

In the film's most famous sequence, the bal masqué, the action is startlingy in two-strip technicolour - a rarity for 1925 and worth the price of admission alone. It really does the action, costumes and scenery justice as the Phantom arrives wearing all red and a skull mask and proceeds to terrify the revelers.

The bal scene is the only surviving colour section and the late Hélène Bromberg brilliantly reproduces the hand painted colour tinting for the other sections such as the phantom on the roof.

Christine and her beau escape to the top of the theatre but the Phantom drags her down to the catacoombs. Raoul (Norman Kerry) is soon in search of her accompanied by Inspector Ledoux (Arthur Edmond Carewe) a lurking presence throughout who has been on the case for some time.

Things hot up as the Phantom uses the old torture chambers to trap the men, sneaks off under water to ensnare Raoul’s brother and looks to be unstoppable. But his collateral murders – never entirely explained – have taken too many souls and the brother of one (an enraged Gibson Gowland who played McTeague in Greed) leads a gang set on murderous revenge.

The closing stages are a thrilling set piece Including a chase past Notre Dame Cathedral - still standing following Chaney's star turn as the Hunchback in 1923. The various strands culminate in near death, a dramatic escape and final watery justice…

I enjoyed it far more than I expected to. Chaney is excellent and exhibits a tremendous physicality in acting through his make-up. Whether he's wearing a mask or smothered in his horrific face paint, you know what he's thinking. The Phantom is the way he looks and he reacts to the world with horror. He will kill anyone who gets in his way and is only stopped by the force of his love for Christine.

Mary Philbin is a little over-wrought at times, but she’s very well cast as the kind of singer any ghoul would fall for and… this is an opera after all! She shows her more naturalistic range in Sloman’s Surrender and was no mere scream queen.

There’s a choice of soundtracks on the Carlton set and I opted for the stirring orchestral score from Gabriel Thibaudeau which works really well given the grandiloquence on display. There's also a highly-informative commentary from Dr John Mirsalis who explains the background to the different versions.

Available at a very reasonable price from Amazon, don’t be put off by the modern musical and see this through your best pair of 20’s opera glasses.

Never judge a film by a musical based on the book...

No comments:

Post a Comment