Since 1925 The Phantom of the Opera has terrified men, women, and children. When the film was first released, it caused moviegoers to faint in the cinema due to the delicate sensibilities of 20th century cinema patrons.
When silent films were first released, people were looking for the latest thrill and the latest shock. Certain film genres were met with critical acclaim by the general public and critics upon their release; however, one genre has always been craved since the early 19th century, and that is, of course, horror. Horror films have been a guilty pleasure of ours for decades.
Even before films were made, horror literature was being read by the brave few that dared to use the human imagination to conjure up monsters and unthinkable violence. When the silent film industry was in its early days, it focused primarily on comedies and westerns. The horror genre made its debut in the early 1900’s with titles such as Frankenstein (1910) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1908), but these were extremely short films with not much story or depth to them.
In the 1920s horror films were becoming increasingly longer and bolder as a means to quench the hunger from audiences who wanted to be shocked and appalled by fresh new ideas. It was due to this demand that some of the greatest and most disturbing horror films of our time were made, and to this very day, despite being decades later, titles like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) still very much hold their own.
With the horror genre constantly evolving and becoming increasingly daring, Universal Pictures began coming to grips with creating a new horror feature that was based on Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra, which translates to, of course, The Phantom of the Opera. Actor, director, screenwriter, and makeup artist Lon Chaney, Sr., had full run of Erik the Phantom’s look. He painted his eye sockets black, giving a skull-like impression to them with a deep hollowness that is often quite grotesque to look at. He also pulled the tip of his nose up with wire, pinning it in place, and then enlarged his nostrils with black paint, making it appear as though he had no nose. Lon then put a set of jagged false teeth into his mouth to complete the ghastly withering skull look of Erik the Phantom.
Chaney was ahead of his time and a master craftsman. He became both notorious and famous for doing his own monster makeup and enjoyed his craft immensely. When audiences first saw Erik’s mask get pulled off by Christine, they fainted and screamed. Chaney’s makeup for this character remains one of the greatest ever to grace the horror genre. It’s absolutely second to none, and Chaney cranks up the terror to 11 with sinister bravado and ease.
In this stunning and stirring silent film, Erik the Phantom is less sympathetic than the other versions of this character brought to the screen and is played as a monster longing for love that gradually ends up killing him in one of the most grotesque and brutal ways any monster has died on the silver screen.
Director Rupert Julian, as well as some uncredited others, help bring the book to life in all its grotesque form. Chaney, Sr., truly shines as The Phantom of the Opera, and his co-star, Mary Philbin, who plays Christine Daae, balance each other out on-screen with some of the best and most terrifying Beauty and the Beast tropes the genre has ever seen. The grand scale of The Phantom of the Opera is nothing short of epic; they built big sets for the Phantom’s lair as well as the Paris Opera House, in which most of the movie is set.
If it’s been awhile or if you’re new to the genre, give it a watch… if you dare…