Monday, August 25, 2008

Horror Classic 31 of 50: THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA

First of all, I want to mention that I just spent 20 minutes wandering around my apartment looking under things because I could not find my notes on this movie, before finally finding them in an unlikely place. Now, it may just be that I misplaced them, but I don't think that's the true explanation. I'm almost certain that my notes were, in fact, stolen and hidden from me by... THE PHANTOM!

The Phantom of the Opera is a 1925 silent film starring Lon Chaney (Senior), based on the 1909 novel by Gaston Leroux, which was of course based on the Twiggy episode of The Muppet Show, in which the theater is haunted by the Phantom of the Muppet Show.

These days, of course, when most people think of the Phantom story, they think of the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical. I've seen the musical, but fortunately I had forgotten enough of it that I didn't know everything that was going to happen in the movie.

Synopsis
The Paris Opera House is enormous, and grand, and palatial... and built on top of old torture chambers and dungeons. Very early in the movie, we see a man wandering through the tunnels below, carrying a lantern. This leads to a static shot lasting at least 30 seconds featuring the lantern man standing there staring into space. This has no importance whatsoever to the rest of the movie.

The opera house is changing hands today, and the old owners are glad to be rid of it, because there's a phantom haunting the joint. They don't tell the new owners that little detail until after the papers have been signed... it's kinda like when you sell your car and it's only after you've gotten paid that you tell the buyer about the velociraptor living in the trunk. To emphasize the point that there's a phantom and he's scary, there's an extended sequence of a bunch of ballerinas running around all terrified because they spotted him, but because they're ballerinas their terrified running is all very graceful.

The opera's star singer, Carlotta, receives a letter from Mr. Phantom himself. It informs her that she must stay out of the show on Wednesday night, and let the young singer Christine take her place. She goes along with it. She probably wanted a day off anyway. On Wednesday night, Christine's beau Raoul comes to see her sing. Do you suppose he really likes opera, or is he just there because as her boyfriend he's obligated? I'm sure he'd much rather be at a monster truck rally.

After the show, Christine hears a "voice like an angel" somewhere behind the wall of her dressing room. The owner of the voice tells her he's going to help her reach her full potential as a singer, as long as she allows him to be her master. For some reason, she's all like, "Yeah, okay." Right away we can tell there's something wrong with her. A mysterious voice in the wall who wants to own you? You might not want to give him your phone number, honey.

And then Carlotta gets another letter, but this time she appears in the show anyway, in a costume that makes her look EXACTLY like the Swiss Miss. Is there an opera about hot cocoa? As Carlotta sings, the lights flicker, and then... the chandelier plummets from the ceiling and crashes into the audience! This Phantom fellow means business! What a menace!

And now he makes his move: He takes Christine (through a hidden door behind her mirror) into his underground world of catacombs and tunnels. When she sees that his whole face is covered by a mask, she suddenly has second thoughts... but he's not letting her go anywhere.

He takes her to his bedroom and tells her he loves her, which I'm pretty sure Dr. Drew would have advised him not to do. He tells her he wants her to be his, and his love will redeem her, and blah blah blah. Also, his real name is Erik, and he's hard a really, really hard life, but he's not such a bad guy. No, really. Oh, and one more thing: Whatever she does, she is not to touch his mask.

Guess what she does the next morning as he's playing the organ? That's right, she takes off his mask, and HOLY GUACAMOLE! This is one phantom that done got beat with a ugly stick! But even after this incident, he allows her to leave so she can attend the masquerade ball, but she has to never ever see her boyfriend again. The ball rolls around, and suddenly the movie goes from black and white to color! Apparently the masked ball takes place in Munchkinland. The Phantom shows up at the ball to scold everyone for having fun. He also spies Christine and Raoul planning to leave town together. Then we go back to black and white.

That doesn't sit so well with Erik, so the next night when Christine takes the stage, he takes Christine. Now it's up to Raoul and his new friend Mr. Ledeoux of the secret police to make their way through the Phantom's maze of madness and get her back.

Is It Scary?
The Phantom is a pretty frightening fella. You know, he's supposed to be something of a tragic figure, but it's difficult to feel sorry for him when he's actively causing trouble for everyone.

Lessons I Learned
  • Opera is no less boring when it's silent.
  • You can lead a horse to an underground river, but you can't make him ride in a gondola.
  • Watch out for the chandelier!
My Favorite Lines
  • You know, there just aren't that many in a silent. But I did chuckle audibly when, after traveling way underground to a hidden chamber by an intimidating man in a mask, Christine pointed at him and said, "You- you are the Phantom!" As if she'd just figured it out.
Body Count
Just one, a stagehand who knew too much about the Phantom. Say, now that you've read this whole post, you know a lot about the Phantom too. Be careful!

Comments
• I'm glad this 50-movie project has forced me to watch a few silent dramas. I like silent comedies, but when it comes to dramas I've been pretty slow to get caught up with the classics.

• Christine was played by Mary Philbin. I was wondering if she was Regis's mom, but I guess she's not. She also starred in 1928's The Man Who Laughs, which also featured a deformed character. That character would later inspire the design of Batman's foe, the Joker. Mention this fact the next time you go to Sonic, and they'll give you free tater tots!

• A couple of characters claim that the Phantom has no nose. So how does he smell? Considering the fact that there are no showers in those underground tunnels, I'd say pret-ty bad.

• Christine really is dumb for agreeing to go with the Phantom and then being shocked when he's weird-looking. I mean, what was she expecting?

• The Phantom's mask here looks nothing like the one from the Andrew Lloyd Weber show. In that version, it's a simple, ivory-white mask that only covers half his face (thus making it easy to see from the balcony and allowing the actor to sing), whereas here it looks like a fake face, with eyes and everything.

• I mentioned in the Lessons I Learned that the Phantom has a horse. Where does it sleep? How does he feed it? And, um, where does it... you know... poop?

• The Phantom's supposed to be a really amazing organist, right? That doesn't come across so well in a silent film, especially when they didn't even bother to put any organ on the soundtrack.

• I guess that one color sequence was just to show off all the masquerade costumes. The Phantom himself shows up brightly garbed as Red Death, which is pretty striking.

• The Phantom really is hideous without his mask. I already knew what he looked like, as the image has become iconic, but I imagine it must have been breathtakingly startling for audiences seeing the film for the first time in 1925. Lon Chaney suffered for his art, too. This is from Wikipedia's informative entry on the movie:

Chaney pulled his eyeballs out from their sockets with thin wires, so that his eyes appeared to bulge out and their sockets became very deep. He then kept his eyes in their bulged-out position with wires and painted his eye sockets black, giving a skull-like impression to them. He also pulled the tip of his nose up and pinned that in place with wire, enlarging his nostrils with black paint, and putting a set of jagged false teeth into his mouth to complete the ghastly deformed look of the Phantom.

Yowza.

Letter grade for The Phantom of the Opera: B+
Next film in the 50-movie set:
Indestructible Man

3 comments:

L. F. Chaney said...

I amuse myself by hiding things that people leave laying around in their homes.

You have a good sense of humor. You can take it.

L. F. Chaney said...

By the way, would you mind if I repost your blog on my MySpace profile? It's pretty good. Of course, I will give you full credit and add a link back to your blog.

Thanks,

L. C.

Ryan Roe said...

Wow! Lon Chaney commented on my blog! I can only assume that comments from Boris Karloff and George Zucco are close behind.

Yeah, I guess you can repost it as long as you give me credit and a link. Or you could just post the link so people could click over here themselves.