The Phantom of the Opera

Shown: 22 February 1997
Introduced by Andrew Youdell

USA 1925
88 minutes
Directed by Rupert Julian & Edward Sedgwick
Leading players - Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin & Norman Kerry

Synopsis

A disfigured man in a mask abducts the prima donna of the Paris Opera House to his lair in the sewers below. The Phantom is Erik (Lon Chaney) who is in love with Christine (Mary Philbin), and although he improves her singing and her position at the Opera, her sole thought is her military lover (Norman Kerry). The girl is twice abducted by the Phantom to his cellar retreat, and the finish is built up into a wild chase (directed by Edward Sedgwick) through secret doors, heat chambers, flooded passages and a drive through the streets of Paris pursued by a vengeful mob.

* * * * * *

So great were the profits from 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923), that Universal decided to film another Parisian horror story, this time an adaptation of Gaston Leroux's 1908 novel 'The Phantom of the Opera'.

Lon Chaney had moved to MGM and, in order to get him back to make Phantom, Chaney was able to achieve what is probably his greatest horror creation on his own terms.

It is reported the production cost approached $1 million, including $50,000 for retakes. It was Chaney's make-up and its unmasking that was the keystone of the horror. The Phantom sits at an organ and plays Don Juan Triumphant - his own composition, first heard four years later when David Broekman and Max Hayman added it to the film for a synchronised reissue.

In a superb piece of montage, Rupert Julian, the director, builds up the tension as the camera cuts close-ups, long shots, distorted shots. The audience receives the initial shock as Christine unmasks the living skull, then the terror is doubled as he swings round to face her. "Women screamed, strong men fainted" in an unmasking unrivalled until 1931 when James Whale revealed his Frankenstein monster. Julian's was the original unmasking sequence in horror movies and is still the best.