Thursday, October 23, 2014
The Phantom of the Opera
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?
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.
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.