As promised at the end of my review of the 1943 version of Phantom of the Opera I have since gone back and watched Universal’s first attempt at this particular ‘monster.’ Released in 1925, this is a silent film and sees Lon Chaney step into the mask of the Phantom.
And he is instantly what sets this movie apart from Universal’s latter effort. While it is difficult to capture terror in a silent film – at least when faced with a modern audience – Chaney manages that with his Phantom. There’s no silly backstory here; he is a man born disfigured who falls in love with a singer and sets out to make her his own, but the physical representation of him is worth a thousand overwrought beginnings. The moment where his mask is removed for the first time is one of genuine shock, even if you have seen pictures of him beforehand.
It’s all the more impressive because he is bringing that fear against the over the top flourishes of silent movies. When he enters a masquerade ball dressed as the Red Duke, he is quite frankly camp, and once you’ve gone camp, it is quite a feat to go back to troubled villain. Yet, manage it he does, and you both feel sorry for the life that Chaney’s Phantom has lived and fear the person he has become.
Sadly, that representation is damaged by the ending of the film. I shan’t spoil it but despite initially being set to follow the book it was changed due to poor audience reaction. It’s a shame because it takes away from what should be the emotional end of a fascinating character and replaces it with blood and thunder.
Outside of Chaney, the film does not live up to his performance. I have to say I’m not an expert on silent cinema so it might be a slight block coming from myself but it starts slow and fails to capture you until about half way through. When it gallops into the final act, the aforementioned change to the ending and the introduction of a torture room sees it descend into the ridiculous.
Much like the 1943 version the chandelier scene is obviously their crowing glory and once again it does look spectacular. However, it doesn’t do enough to make this film anything more than a curiosity. It captures the character at its heart wonderfully, and that alone makes it worth a watch, but when you move past Chaney, it is still a rather unfulfilling experience.
Verdict: Hall of Alright