Director: Rupert Julian
Starring: Loney Chaney, Mary Philbin
In spite of the fact that films made today are more permissive when it comes to violence and sex, silent horror films have an impact that few films made after can match. The unromanticized monsters of films like Nosferatu and The Phantom of the Opera are effective figures that seem to have been plucked right out of a nightmare and onto the screen and remain frightening eight decades later. Though it sometimes veers a little too far into melodrama, Rupert Julian's version of Gaston Leroux's novel is intense enough to make you forget every other version of the story.
The story of The Phantom of the Opera, in case you didn’t know, is this: beneath the Paris opera house a disfigured composer, known to all as The Phantom (Lon Chaney), lives and nurses an obsession with the young singer Christine Daae (Mary Philbin). In order to help his beloved achieve fame and success, he forces the opera’s star Carlotta (Mary Fabian) off the stage through a campaign of terror that includes sending the chandelier crashing down onto the audience. With Christine’s status as a star secured, it is time for her to meet her mysterious mentor. After opening a secret passage in her dressing room, she descends with The Phantom deep underground to his lair, realizing with each step what a dangerous error in judgment she’s made. The Phantom is not the romantic hero of her fantasies, but a clearly unhinged man who tells her she must never attempt to remove his mask.
Any guesses as to how long it takes her to unmask him? Believe me, it isn’t long and what she finds isn’t the semi-scarred face of Gerard Butler as in the 2004 musical film version, but a truly horrific visage designed by Chaney, whose motto when choosing characters was, apparently, the more disfigured and grotesque, the better. Seeing his skull-like face, Christine shrinks away from him but there’s no escape: The Phantom has traps set everywhere and no one can navigate them safely but him. This of course won’t stop Christine’s lover Raoul (Norman Kerry) from trying, which leads to the dramatic and exciting finale.
Chaney is commonly known as "the man of a thousand faces," a moniker which does him a slight disservice because it draws all the attention to his makeup. The makeup is, of course, wonderfully grotesque, but his isn't a performance built on makeup alone. His Phantom is a monster, yes, but one who has suffered wounds of his own, who inflicts pain on others because he is himself so intensely vulnerable. In his twisted way he does love Christine and covets her both for her beauty and for what that beauty represents: the key to being adored by others. The Phantom is a gifted composer but because of his face he can never stand before an audience to receive applause. He lives vicariously through Christine and accepts her triumph as a triumph of his own. The Phantom is a fascinating character, a frightening character, but above all, a character to be pitied and Chaney's performance brings all of those elements together in a wonderful, intriguing way.
Aside from Chaney’s performance, I think what makes this version of the story so much more effective than others is the fact that it’s silent. There’s a moody, nightmarish quality to the film that draws you in almost against your will. The production values of later versions are more impressive – the chandelier sequence and the masked ball of the 2004 musical version are certainly stylish and memorable, albeit in a film that is completely soulless – but they are unable to capture the darkly magical quality of this one. Everything just seems so sinister in this version and as the story gathers steam, it becomes outright horrific. From the point when The Phantom is unmasked onward (“Feast your eyes! Glut your soul on my accursed ugliness!”), the film is absolutely riveting and the final act, as The Phantom is chased through his lair and then the streets of Paris, is pitch perfect. Although the film starts a bit slow, it ends up being a very satisfying viewing experience.