Director: Rupert Julian
Writers: Walter Anthony, Elliot J. Clawson, Bernard McConville, Frank M. McCormack, Tom Reed, Raymond L. Schrock, Jasper Spearing, and Richard Wallace (All Uncredited)
Cast: Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Gibson Gowland, John Sainpolis, Snitz Edwards, Mary Fabian, and Virginia Pearson
Composer: Gustav Hinrichs
Release Date: 11/15/1925
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
While preparing for her next performance, the prima donna Carlotta (Mary Fabian) is sent a threatening letter by a man claiming to be the Phantom (Lon Chaney). When Christine Daae (Mary Philbin)—fiancée of Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry) and love interest of the Phantom—fails to replace Carlotta, tragic consequences ensue.
A faithful adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s source material, The Phantom of the Opera will appeal to fans of the novel that inspired it. Universal Monster enthusiasts are also advised to view this film, which employs a number of tropes that would influence the cinematic direction of the horror genre for years to come.
By shrouding its title character in a thick layer of mystery prior to the appropriate time, The Phantom of the Opera builds and maintains a suspenseful atmosphere despite operating under obvious technical limitations; notably, a spectral figure lurks about the Paris Opera House catacombs—the ideal location for a “monster” to inhabit—while expository dialogue/title cards (i.e. speculation regarding Erik’s deformities) conjure up images of a hideous creature not unlike Leroux’s literary descriptions of the Phantom. When Christine finally gives in to her morbid curiosity and reveals the skeletal face hidden behind Erik’s mask, an abrupt editing technique enhances the shocking impact produced by Lon Chaney’s iconic makeup; in contrast, many preceding sequences generate tension by employing devices of a purely suggestive nature.
It should be noted that in order to convey a satisfactory level of pathos, the actors were often required to emote with extraordinary flamboyance while delivering their lines—a trademark of nearly every silent film. That being said, there are times when a subtler approach to acting would have more realistically emphasized the conflict underlying certain character motivations (e.g. Christine visibly hesitates before turning the scorpion lever and thereby sparing Raoul’s life, thus unintentionally raising doubts about her selflessness as a protagonist).
Though frequently included among Universal Studios’ lineup of classic monsters, Erik more closely embodies the characteristics of a hopeless romantic who, as implied in one remarkably poignant scene, was transformed into “the Phantom” only because man’s hatred had prompted him to commit deeds of a heinous variety. The Phantom’s background of rejection is therefore similar in many ways to that of other Universal Monsters; however, the deliberateness with which Erik exhibits cruelty in some instances and displays kindness in others would seem to distinguish him from (for example) Frankenstein’s monster, who behaves in a similar fashion but without a sense of intelligence and moral reasoning to govern his actions, both good and bad.
The Phantom of the Opera is a chilling, if unofficial, introduction to Universal Studios’ original monster series. Especially worth mentioning is the air of tragedy surrounding Chaney’s performance, which makes the Phantom a sympathetic character in spite of his odious tendencies.
Overall Quality: 9/10
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