Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Phantom of the Opera

Many have lamented the state of the modern vampire. Once a monstrous creature of the night who terrorized villages and corrupted the living with his/her unholy thirst for blood, the dominant image of the vampire today is not Dracula or Count Orlock but Edward Cullen. But, if you know where to look, there still some vampire movies in which they are still monsters.

Fewer people seem to discuss the modern image of The Phantom of the Opera. A character first introduced in the novel of the same name by Gaston Leroux, the phantom is the twisted, disfigured, obsessive genius and madman who haunts the Paris Opera House.  The phantom's modern representation is encapsulated in the Andre Lloyd Weber musical, and it's a much more romantic interpretation of the character. Because the phantom is a specific character and not a type of creature, it's harder to escape the shadow of over-familiarity. You don't need Dracula for a vampire story, but the phantom kind of has to be in the opera. If you want a more horrific handling of the material, you'll need to re-visit one of the older movies.

Lon Chaney plays the phantom in the 1925 silent adaptation. Mary Philbin is Christine, the understudy who becomes the star thanks to the phantom's obsession with her, and Norman Kerry is her betrothed, Raoul. Those three comprise the tragic love story at the heart of The Phantom of the Opera, and the question stands: will Christine choose love with (the boring) Raoul and risk the phantom's retribution or will she accept the devil-incarnate's bargain of fame and success at the cost of being his slave?

Chaney was likely the first great horror movie star, paving the way for the likes Lugosi, Karloff, Lee, Cushing, and Price (interestingly, he was pegged to star in Dracula before his death, which paved the way for Lugosi's iconic interpretation that would define the cinematic vampire for decades). I don't know whether Chaney could have successfully transitioned from the silent era to talkies, but as the phantom, he didn't a voice. Entirely through body language, gesture, and makeup of his creation (the Man of a 1,000 Faces as he was known grew up with deaf parents and had to communicate non-verbally with them), he creates an unforgettable portrait of theatrical madness and villainy.

The phantom is all over the map: twisted, tortured, hopeful, enraged, lamenting, insane, domineering, lonely, sardonic, and calculating. Whether racing through the bowels of the theater, perched on a concrete angel statue, or playing the organ, he is just compulsively watchable; he really makes you feel everything he's going through. Sometimes all we get is a glimpse, a shadow on the wall or a passing figure in a coat in a crowd - but it's enough to sell his presence and his dark threat. At the end, when trapped by the requisite mob with pitchforks, he holds them at by acting like he's got something in his hand before laughing, revealing he has nothing. Without Chaney, the movie is a just a silly costume drama.

There are a few nifty images in The Phantom of the Opera - the phantom's unmasking by Christine, the labyrinth of tunnels that lead to a river underneath the theater, the shadow of a dead man dangling from a noose. Like Nosferatu there is an element of German Expressionism in the movie's visual style. While the stage itself looks realistic, the underground lair beneath it, with all its enormous statues and endless maze of tunnels, is a surreal dungeon. Another nice image occurs when Raoul and a detective descend into the dungeon in pursuit of the phantom, and they are warned off by a stranger who walks by them, lit only be a lantern, giving us the impression of a disembodied head.

But I'm not sure the material lends itself to a silent movie. A movie set in an opera and featuring performances, especially ones in which the quality of the singers' voices are imperative to the plot, needs to let us hear them (and the stock music on my DVD is inappropriate and destroys any sense of mood or atmosphere). I'm not saying I prefer the musical, but when the story involves how the phantom trains Christine to be the best singer in Paris and considering how so much horror could be conveyed by his voice (instead of inter-titles asking "Did you hear voices?"), the silent format feels limiting. Plus, there are too many title cards explaining the plot, the characters, and the themes instead of telling the story visually.

Overall, there are much better silent horror movies from this period. Maybe the story has been overdone, but it's really hard to take this story seriously anymore. Except for the phantom, the other characters are laughably simplistic and dull, but for Chaney's performance, truly one of the most iconic of the genre, it is worth seeing.

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