Today is the anniversary of the New York City premiere of the Universal horror classic The Phantom of the Opera (1925). This is handily one of the first silent movies I was ever exposed to and I expect I am not unique in that regard. I would speculate that horror runs second only to comedy as most-watched silent film genre nowadays.
As we wrote in our recent post about The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) , Phantom is in some respects the second Universal horror film, in other respects the first. Hunchback had been an adaptation of a great work of literature. A “monster” is at the heart of the story, but the primary motive of the vehicle isn’t necessarily to scare, although that may be one of the outcomes. On the other hand, Phantom, while operatic in scope as well as subject matter, and also an adaptation of literature, truly is focused on suspense, thrills and horror. Lon Chaney devised his most famous make-up for his portrayal of the Phantom, first among a career distinguished by too many memorable guises to count (although I doubt it was actually a thousand, as his promoters claimed).
Do I need to run down the plot? If you haven’t seen the film, you probably know the 1986 Andrew Lloyd Weber musical. But in the event you’ve encountered neither…
The scene is the Paris Opera House. We hear of rumors of occasional sightings of a mysterious Phantom who lives beneath the theatre. At the same time, there is a mysterious man who frequents the opera; he always hides his face and rents the same box. He terrorizes the company in order to promote the career of a girl he loves (Mary Philbin) – forcing the producers to let her sing lead parts, and threatening her main rival, the company’s prima donna (Virginia Pearson). When the rival sings, a HUGE chandelier falls on the audience. The mysterious man means business. Finally, he meets the girl. She is thrilled at first, but gradually becomes uneasy as she sees the weird mask he wears and he leads her deeper and deeper into a remote sub-basement of the theatre, five levels down and then across a “black lake” which evokes the River Styx… into his sumptuous subterranean apartment (a trope borrowed for everything from the Batcave to V for Vendetta). He sleeps in a coffin. And he plays a pipe organ, a device which has been copied by a million movie villains since. Then she pulls his mask off, revealing one of the most iconic, horrific make-ups ever.
The Phantom’s emotion is not really love, of course. It is just obsession and resentment—the Phantom is the original stalker. He agrees to release her to sing again but she must never again see her former lover (Norman Kerry). Of course she does, and the Phantom catches her in the act. There follows wonderful scene in color, conjuring Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death”—a costume ball. The Phantom kidnaps her again, this time pursued by her lover and a policeman. They encounter booby traps along the way. Torture chambers from the revolution. They become trapped in one room filled with unbearable heat. They escape but they find themselves in another room, filled with water, nearly drowning them. Meanwhile a mob approaches, a climax conjuring the one in the previously successful Hunchback. In the end they catch the Phantom, kill him and throw him in the river.
Here’s the most famous scene — the reveal:
For more on silent cinema please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc