The Paris Opera House is haunted by the title Phantom (Horror icon Lon Chaney) who sends threatening messages demanding that the opera’s lead soprano be replaced by her understudy Christine (Mary Philbin). The Phantom abducts Christine and at his subterranean lair reveals the hideous visage he keeps hidden behind a mask and professes love for the understandably horrified Christine. Meanwhile, the police and Christine’s fiancé Raoul (Norman Kerry) are searching for them.
Of the four versions of this tale that I’ve seen, none have stood out as the absolute definitive version, and in fact the Dario Argento (“Suspiria”, “Inferno”) version was flat-out awful. But this 1925 silent version from director Rupert Julian stands respectably among the other two versions I’ve seen (The Joel Schumacher adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, and the underrated version starring Robert Englund), as solid three-star entertainment. All versions offer something a little different from one another, and whilst I think this version is a bit long for such a scant story, but it still has its charms. In fact, I’ve never been a huge fan of the story, so this streamlined version is more to my liking in that respect, and its expressionistic visuals offer some extremely attractive imagery. The sets look absolutely terrific for a film from the 20s, I’ve got to say, kudos to production/art designer Charles D. Hall. The B&W cinematography by Charles Van Enger is top-notch, with mucho expressionism on display. The use of shadows as a means of holding off from showing the Phantom’s visage is wonderfully done and very clever.
In fact, it’s in the moments not featuring Chaney’s unforgettable Phantom that the film drags a bit. When Chaney’s on screen, it’s enjoyable stuff, though I also loved the chandelier falling scene, which is well-done for the period. The mask itself is in my opinion much creepier than in the Andrew Lloyd Webber version at least, and quite cool, simplistic as it may be. The unmasking scene is still a remarkable visual to this day, and not quite sullied by lead actress Philbin reacting like she’s having the orgasm of the century in anticipation of the unmasking.
The Phantom’s romantic declarations actually play better on title cards than in dialogue, if you ask me, so that’s one plus this version definitely has. I also thought that of all the silent films I’ve seen, this one has the least exaggerated performances, and that’s a good thing, though one must remember that acting styles were different back then as they were working without spoken dialogue. The thing I found most interesting about this film is its interpretation of the Christine character as a bit opportunistic. She loathes the Phantom but has no problems putting off her escape with Raoul until after the performance, a performance she wouldn’t even have an opportunity to give without the Phantom’s help! Women, eh? So as repulsive as Chaney looks, I actually found myself interestingly more on his side. It’s not the most romanticised or sympathetic interpretation of the character, but I was more in his camp than in any other version I’ve seen simply because the Christine character isn’t entirely the naive ingénue of other versions. And hey, she’s awfully picky about choosing her life partners, isn’t she?
It must be said that the film lacks the genuine creepiness of “Nosferatu” and Julian (who was replaced during filming by Edward Sedgwick with an assist by Chaney himself) lacks the sophisticated filmmaking skills of Buster Keaton (“Sherlock Jr.”, “The General”) and Alfred Hitchcock (“The Lodger”). He’s no F.W. Murnau, and I’d suggest the Expressionistic touches are more the work of cinematographer Van Enger.
The film is fun and has its own quaint charms and hey, at least it’s never going to be accused of being ‘talky’. Certainly a must for silent horror film buffs.