The Phantom of the Opera was the 1925 silent horror film adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel of the same title. The book is also known in its original French title Le Fantôme De l’Opéra. The mad disfigured composer Erik played by monster horror icon, the man of 1000 faces Lon Chaney, Sr. Erik haunts the Paris Opera House as the mysterious Phantom. Erik falls in love becomes obsessed with young opera singer Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin) and finds himself in a desperate love triangle with Daae and Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry). Not only is the Phantom willing to anything to make her into a star and his bride, but he will stop at nothing to make sure that if he can’t have her then no one will either.
This Universal Picture film stands out from previous films discussed on this platform due to its seemly large production cost. This horror classic was originally intended to be suspenseful melodrama and not a monster horror film. People involved in the production of the film feared that a melodrama would gross enough at box offices to make up for the films large budget. Interestingly the films large budget was largely due to one of its defining features. One of the first element of this film the audience will notice is the large and lavish sets. Producer Laemmle commissioned the construction of the Opera House on what would become known as the Phantom of the Opera Stage a.k.a. Stage 28. This set was the first to be created with steel and concrete and was built to support thousands of extras. Working with such a large cast an crew was not a walk in the park
The film’s production was a mess from the very beginning. Tensions between director Rupert Julian and Lon Chaney were high as they were between the director and the rest of his cast and crew. The film went through numerous edits and re-edits and the release date had changed several times before it was finally released. Despite numerous setbacks, The Phantom of the Opera was a commercial success. In fact, the film’s box office success would result in Universal Studios repeated attempt at re-capturing its success. In light of this film’s success, Universal went on to produce more monster horror flicks such as Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man and many other.
Chaney’s excellent and over the top performance as well as his make-up artistry skills made this film iconic. Chaney’s use of pantomime and body exaggerative body language supplements the actor’s inability to use his voice. While at times his movements seem overdramatic and unrealistic it was effective in allowing the audience understand the emotions of his character. The skeletal face of the Phantom is one imagining that is most true to the description given in the novel. Lon Chaney’s Phantom will always keep you up at night.
While the film was a commercial success during the 1920s there are still plenty of drawbacks for modern views. The Opera house is full of deep and unforgiving shadows that obscure the vision of the audience but also our vision of the action. While the low-key lighting may have effectively given the film a more eerie tone it often seemed as though some scenes were too dark to even discern what is taking place. The film also cheated the audience out of a proper ending.
After Christine is kidnaped by the Phantom and Raoul fails to save her on his own an angry mob saves the day. After they discover the Phantom’s hideout the mob, in true classic Universal Horror fashion hunt down Erik, beat him to death and throw him into a river. The angry mob cliche that this film establishes is done ineffectively and is an example of lazy writing regardless of the century.
While this sensational ending was exciting to watch it did not provide the audience with a satisfying conclusion. Regardless of its issues, this film has left a legacy in the world of horror cinema. In the following decades to come, The Phantom’s influence will be felt in the monster horror films to come.