Thursday, January 23, 2020

1929's The Phantom of the Opera Remains As Impressive and Chilling As Ever

OK, I'll admit it, I went into this original take on The Phantom of the Opera (the 1929 colorized version) with some levels of trepidation. My only two prior exposures to the classic versions of the Universal Monsters (the original takes on Dracula and The Mummy) just didn't click for me. Both had impressive elements but overall, they suffered from a similar flaw of just not being nearly eerie enough nor really interesting visually. That latter flaw is a particular shame given how so many horror films from the earliest days of cinema (like Nosferatu or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) have outstanding imagery that still stands up as blood-curdling today. Thankfully, those shortcomings were nowhere to be found in Phantom, this one clicks together beautifully and totally sold me on why monsters like the Phantom became such silver screen icons.

Based on the book of the same name by Gaston Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera concerns an assortment of performers at the Paris Opera House, particularly singer Christine Daae (Mary Philbin) and her lover Raoul (Norman Kerry). Everybody in this building speaks in hushed whispers about a figure who, legend tells, lives beneath the Opera House. This is the person known as The Phantom (Lon Chaney). Turns out, The Phantom isn't just real but he's got his sights set on Christine. This disfigured being has fallen head over heels for Christine romantically and wants her all to himself. Such a possessive attitude is not exactly music to Christine's ears but The Phantom is willing to do whatever it takes to get the woman of his dreams.

This includes making sure gigantic chandelier falls on the audience at the Opera House and kidnapping Christine outright. The Phantom's pursuits of Christine lead the viewer and the rest of the cast to discover the Phantom's underground lair, a tremendous achievement in production design. This location is especially impressive in how it quietly communicates a sense of being detached from reality. The presence of boats, horses and a never-ending collection of dangerous trap rooms straight out of a Saw movie all make the domain of The Phantom less of a large basement and more like a whole other world hidden beneath the Opera House. All of the sets used to bring this locale to life hauntingly convey the idea that this is such a vast place that, once you're down here, there's no escape.

Nearly a century after its release, these environments remain as unsettling as ever, ditto for the somewhat see-through human mask The Phantom dons throughout the runtime. Speaking of the Phantom, Lon Chaney's performance as the character, like the production design of this film, remains eternally entertaining. Chaney was all about imbuing his abnormal characters with recognizably human qualities and that certainly comes through his lead performance in The Phantom of the Opera. Instead of just making The Phantom a one-note boogeyman, he lends more dimensionality to the role. In the hands of Chaney, The Phantom's pain over the heartbreak he feels for Christine is just as vividly-realized as his conniving nature.

I especially love the little flamboyant gestures Chaney keeps incorporating into his performance, particularly a bit where The Phantom does this clapping of his hands after killing off a side character. What a delightful extra note to add to this character who is brought to life with impressive makeup effects (also courtesy of Chaney). In this 1929 release of The Phantom of the Opera, Chaney's performance and makeup work are rendered through color tinting added to a previously black-and-white movie. Going back to add color to a movie that wasn't initially made for more than two colors is usually a fool's errand but count The Phantom of the Opera as one rare exception to that rule.

The color tinting doesn't just look good but the use of certain colors actually adds to the uneasy atmosphere of The Phantom of the Opera. In the Phantom's lair, more heightened shades of red & purple are employed to reinforce the bizarre quality of this location. This newly-added color tinting process, like the production design, clearly conveys the idea that the Phantom lives in a place detached from reality. Whereas the classic versions of Dracula and The Mummy just left me unimpressed, the performances and visuals in The Phantom of the Opera actually succeeded in chilling me to the bone, particularly in regards to the work put in by the one and only Lon Chaney. Best of all, this take on the character is devoid of all traces of Gerard Butler!

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