Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Before I Die #591: The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

This is the 591st movie I've now seen out of the 1,187 films on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working through.

Directors: Rupert Julian and Lon Chaney, Sr.

One of the better silent movies I've seen, with a few elements that still hold up fairly well.

The movie is, of course, based on the Gaston Laroux novel of the same name, published in 1910. It follows the same basic plot: at the Paris Opera House exist strange rumors of a "phantom" that lurks about the shadows of the venue. One night, the Phantom makes himself known by threatening the current prima donna Carlotta to step down and allow the younger, talented understudy Christine Daae take the lead role. While Carlotta does this initially, for fear of her life, she refuses the second time that the mysterious Phantom makes the same demand. This refusal sends the Phantom into a frenzy, whereupon he crashes the massive chandelier into the audience during a performance. He follows this by kidnapping Christine and secreting her away to his lair - a massive, trap-laden, labyrinthine system of catacombs beneath the Opera House and other parts of Paris. The Phantom explains only to Christine that his name is Erik and that he is madly in love with her. He also shows himself to be a brilliant organist, although he is clearly unhinged. Erik does allow Christine to go free, upon the promise that she will abandon any romantic relationships and become his sole pupil. When Christine eventually tries to escape from this maniacal bond, the Phantom kidnaps her again. Her would-be suitor Raoul and Ledoux, a member of the Paris secret police, pursue the two into the catacombs, where they find themselves trying to evade the Phantom's many lethal traps. Hot on their heels is a mob of Parisians who have discovered Erik's existence and are storming the catacombs for him, as well. Raoul and Ledoux do manage to escape with their lives and Christine, barely. Erik flees his lair, only to be caught by the mob, pummelled to death, and thrown into the river.

It's a wild tale that covers a lot of ground in the film's brisk 91 minutes, and it was one of the very first horror/adventure movies. Seeing it today, in 2016, it's easy to see why it is considered to have kicked off the entire genre - a genre which gave birth to the later hit monster movies like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and so many others. Phantom of the Opera creates a wonderful and frightening fantasy world for viewers to get completely lost in. While the first scenes in the Paris Opera House are nothing special, they do build the mystery around the Phantom well enough. But once Christine is first abducted and we get into Erik's underground lair, we are drawn into a world that has its own spooky allure. It is a combination of mazes, canals, and lavish rooms and decorations which has an effect similar to some of the more adventurous sets and moments in later movies like those mentioned above.

The reveal of the face underneath the Phantom's mask. This
still may look a bit comical, but the scene itself has a
surprisingly powerful effect. Modern films could probably
learn something from this about how horror does not require
hyper-complex special effects. 
Is the movie still scary in any way? For the most part, no. However, the scene during which Erik's mask is pulled off and reveals his horrid face is still incredibly unnerving. The makeup work done to transform Cheney's face into such a hideous visage, paired with the framing and shooting of that scene are still incredibly affecting. I'll also say that the movie wasn't afriad to portray Erik as a completely homicidal maniac, with him outright murdering various people in rather brutal ways. It keeps the stakes high enough, even if the characters are nearly all one-dimensional. This is probably one of several steps that led to the enacting of the Hayes code several years later, but it's still fun to see the filmmakers go for it, even so long ago.

As for the characters, there's not much there. The shame of it is that the title character was ripe for some true depth and analysis, being a psychotic who clearly had a passion for and ability with music. The movie touches on Erik's background briefly, but they never get into what could have been a more interesting study of the sharp dichotomy of his character. This is probably far too much to ask from a movie made in 1925, but I can't help it as a modern viewer who's been treated to plenty of great horror movies that delve into the psyches of rich, if terrifying, characters.

Of the 40-odd silent movies I've now seen from the "Before You Die" lists, this is actually one of the few that I would consider watching again. Thanks to its fantasy and horror elements, transporting affect, and overall narrative leanness, it could be fun to see it again.

That's 591 movies down. Only 596 to go before I can die.