Perhaps the oldest film I will discuss this month, The Phantom of the Opera, the original at least, is a French silent film that often gets relegated to secondary mention in the silent film classics of the 1920's. Yet, I can say with some degree of certainty that this is, by far, one of the great works of silent cinema and perhaps one of my new favorite horror films, because unlike some of the previous films discussed this month, one can easily center this nearly century old film comfortably within the genre even if it does have a few moments of melodrama thrown in for good measure. Beyond that, it is easily one of the most well costumed and designed films I have ever come across, between Phantom's too human replica of a mask to the Red Scare costume and even the unexplained headless statue that evades many scenes, nothing is normal in this film and I can imagine that it provided many a nightmare upon its initial release and certainly has the potential to scare the hell out of people even today. Stepping away from the filmmaking aspects, one can still draw a lot of greatness from The Phantom of the Opera in the ways it comments on forced love, notions of societal beauty as well as the breeding of hate in one's soul, all themes that are tackled in great detail and with a decent deal of success. While I understand that it is by no means the first horror film ever made, I would be willing to bet that it is one of the first to engage viewers on such a magnificent cinematic and philosophical level, without getting lost in its showiness, even if it is a theatrical film, it exists in a very self-aware manner of performativity.
The film locates its story at the Paris Opera House where two young woman are vying for lead roles night after night in the various sold-out performances at the theater. The two women, the prima donna Carlotta (Virginia Pearson) and her understudy Christine (Mary Philbin) are not at odds with each other, but when mysterious threats from an unseen man named the Phantom are directed at Carlotta, Christine is afforded an opportunity to sing, with much success, as well as praise from her beaux Raoul (Norman Kerry). After a well-received performance, Raoul begs Christine to step away from opera and marry him, only for Christine to become distracted by voices in the walls from the Phantom (Lon Chaney), confessing his love for Christine and his assurance that she will always have a place as a leading lady in the opera house. Phantom makes true on his promise by causing a chandelier to crash down during Carlotta's next performance, causing mass panic in the house and affording him an opportunity to kidnap Christine. At this point, as a hostage to Phantom, Christine disobeys his request to not remove his mask, only to discover a grotesque man underneath the disguise causing her to faint in disgust and fear. Eventually, Christine agrees to give her heart to Phantom, who she learns to be a man named Erik, if he will allow her back on to perform. Of course, Christine uses this opportunity to meet up with Raoul, much to Phantom's demise, considering he has attended the masquerade the two are at dressed as a demonic version of the Red Scare. Set on keeping Christine for himself, Phantom steals her away again, only to be chased by Raoul, as well as a detective named Inspector Ledoux (Arthur Edmund Carewe) who is an expert in the ways of Phantom. After a series of traps and troubles, the two, along with a mob angered at the Phantom, break into his labyrinth and drown the Phantom, but not before the Phantom slyly reminds them that their fears exist in nothingness.
Again this movie is perfection, as far as silent filmmaking is concerned. I dread ever having to watch one of the film remakes of this story, because I know wholeheartedly that it will be less than stellar and will in all likelihood humanize the character of Phantom. My worries are not in the making the Phantom's looks a means for pity, because it is tragic no doubt, yet this narrative suggests that he gained the disfigurement from dabbling in the dark arts, and, furthermore, his incessant demand to have Christine as a possession all his own reflects an inner ugliness that should manifest itself in a physical way. The original Phantom, one could argue, lacks any redemptive qualities, he readily harms people to get his way and chooses happily to exist in solitude, one article in the film suggesting he actually does so in order to avoid being involved with a bloody revolution. Perhaps we are to blame Andrew Lloyd Webber for making Phantom into something else, but I just want to reiterate that in this early version, with Lon Chaney delivering a brilliant Phantom he has nothing to embrace, except maybe a bit of ungrounded fear directed towards him by a mob of Parisians. Essentially, like all the characters in this film, Phantom is performing a role, one that he gladly embraces and shows no remorse towards, perhaps if he had then his life would have been spared.
Key Scene: There is a moment where Phantom, while dressed as the Red Scare, is hiding in a tree that is one of the greatest moments of cinematography I have ever seen.
I cannot express how necessary of a viewing experience this film proved to be and while it is available to Watch Instantly on Netflix, I highly suggest getting the blu-ray as it will undoubtedly improve the experience.