Thursday, October 28, 2010

Film Review: The Phantom of the Opera (Silent, 1925)

Lon Cheney as Erik, the Phantom
of the Opera from the 1925 film.
With Halloween fast approaching I thought I should review a few classic horror films, and when speaking of horror icons, who better to start with than Lon Cheney? (Bella Lugosi and Boris Karloff will have their turns later). Known as "The Man with a Thousand Faces" Chaney became famous for playing movie monsters and pioneering more realistic make-up techniques. He only made one talking picture because he died tragically of throat cancer in 1930, so to appreciate his genius you have to make the foray into the world of silent film. Today, therefore, I bring you his 1925 smash adaptation of Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera.

Now I know most of you are thinking: "how can you do a credible version of Phantom as a silent movie?" I mean, it takes place in an opera house and the main character is an aspiring prima dona, so one would assume you would need to have some vocals in there. Amazingly, though, this film works remarkably well considering the limitations of the medium.  One of the reasons for this is that most movie theaters used an organ to accompany silent films, which perfectly suited for the scenes when the Phantom is playing that instrument. I won't deny, however, that it is slightly awkward, however, when the opera is supposed to be in progress and you can't hear any vocalists. They try to compensate by showing mostly the ballet scenes from the operas, but when Christine is supposed to be performing, the limitation becomes more obvious.

One thing I will give this film credit for is actually having the Phantom deformed the way Leroux originally wrote it in the novel unlike the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. I also give them credit for not altering Christine and Raoul, unlike subsequent film versions. Really the only thing I can seriously fault them for is destroying the ending. Christine never has her moment of compassion/desperation that ultimately "kills" the Phantom. Instead the Phantom grabs Christine and attempts to flee, only to be caught by the mob and lynched. So that's not nearly as poetic of an ending, and I can't like it for that. But up to that point, the whole scene was extremely accurate to the book, and I give it major points for that.

The rest of the film, however, shortens and simplifies much of the plot, making Christine into a simple damsel in distress, the Phantom into a simple predatory monster, and Raoul into a one-dimensional hero--well, I suppose he didn't have much depth to begin with, but this is worse. In terms of horror, however, Lon Cheney is truly frightening as the Phantom, and since this is a Halloween review, I will give him points for that as well. Of course the make-up was revolutionary during the day, and it actually still looks good 85 years later, and the character is seen doing truly terrifying things.

So as a horror film, this movie is still good, but as an adaptation of the novel, it leaves much to be desired. Overall I'm going to give it a 7 mostly for Lon Cheney's sake. It entertains, but it might fail to satisfy fans of the book or musical.

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