Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera.
The Phantom of the Opera is a gothic horror masterpiece. Its star, Lon Chaney, was called 'The Man of a Thousand Faces' because of his penchant for donning disfiguring disguises and painful make-up. Although he had already made a name for himself in such grotesque roles as Fagin in the 1922 version of Dickens' Oliver Twist and as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame it is for his role as Erik, The Phantom that he will be forever remembered.
The well-known story, set in a Paris opera house, concerns the sudden rise of a beautiful young singer through the intervention of an unknown and mysterious stranger. It is quickly revealed that he is, in fact, the elusive and legendary spectral figure that has haunted the old building for years, known simply as The Phantom. The lovely and innocent Christine, unaware of her benefactor's true identity, follows him down to his hidden lair, five cellars below the Paris streets, where, against his orders (to say nothing of common sense) she snatches off his mask and recoils in horror at his disgusting visage.
She pleads for her life and The Phantom reluctantly agrees to let her perform one last show before returning to be his eternal captive. Of course she immediately plans to betray him by running away with her old boyfriend. Everything builds to a swift and furious climax as the townspeople finally discover the mad fiends lair, chase him to the river and then proceed to beat him to death, before tossing his lifeless corpse into the water.
Many of the classic elements used in the popular Broadway musical were first used in this silent movie. The chandelier that falls on the audience is one and the secret passage through the mirror in Christine's dressing room is another.
Lon Chaney is brilliant in this role. Even when hiding behind the porcelain mask he makes you aware of the suffering Erik has endured. And although he is hideous in appearance and commits horrendous acts, his Phantom is ultimately a sympathetic character.
The directors make great use of shadow and light throughout the movie. The Phantom is often seen as a fleeting image projected on a wall or standing in silhouette. In one scary scene we see the shadow of a man hung, swaying slowly.
This is one of the first true American horror movies and remains one of the all-time best.
Photos © Copyright Universal Pictures (1925)