Monday, October 5, 2015

Film Review: The Phantom of the Opera

"The Phantom of the Opera"  *** (out of ****)

Younger movie fans may think "The Phantom of the Opera" is an Andrew Lloyd Weber stage musical which was turned into a movie in 2004  and starred Gerald Butler and Emmy Rossum. While that is true, older movie fans may recall this motion picture starring Lon Chaney more quickly.

"The Phantom of the Opera" (1925) was based on a novel by Gaston Leroux and is the oldest known surviving film adaptation of Leroux's work. There was believed to have been an adaption made in 1916 that is now considered lost.

Though often considered a "horror" movie I've never felt that description was accurate hence why I have been reluctant to review it in the month of October when I review horror movies. But, the public regards the character, The Phantom, as a horror figure, so, who am I to disagree? To me though, "The Phantom of the Opera" is a macabre romantic / comedy / mystery story, if such a thing exist. And, if it doesn't, that should give you a sense of the direction of the movie. It is all over the place.

While today is the movie is considered a "classic" during its time of release Universal Pictures was not happy with the original final product and there were said to have been three different versions of the movie as during test screenings audiences reacted negatively towards the movie. The original version was directed by Rupert Julian. His version was thought to have been too macabre for audiences. Universal then hired Edward Sedgwick to direct new scenes. Sedgwick was a comedy director who had worked with Buster Keaton and Joe E. Brown. He naturally added more comedy to the story. Finally Universal got its hands on the movie and edited it down to the product we now have. This is what makes the movie lack a consistent tone.

Prior to starring in this movie Lon Chaney had acted in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923) as Quasimodo. It is a movie and a character I was constantly thinking of as I watched Chaney in this movie. Both men are disfigured freaks shun by society. Both men have encounters with a beautiful woman. Both men kidnap the beautiful woman. And both men face an unkind fate. For me, "The Phantom of the Opera" is nothing more than another "Hunchback of Notre Dame", which was written by Victor Hugo well before Leroux wrote his novel.

It would seem only Chaney could have played both of these characters. Chaney had secured a reputation in Hollywood for playing lonely, tortured souls. He was also known to be a wizard with make-up, transforming himself into these hideous creatures. If they gave out Academy Awards in those days for best make-up, he would have been a lock.

"The Phantom of the Opera" largely takes place at the Paris Opera House where we hear rumors from performers and stage hands of a Phantom lurking around scaring everyone in sight with its ghastly appearance. The Phantom though may be the person behind demands that Christine Daae (Mary Philbin) play the lead role in each opera by writing threatening letters to the current leading lady of the troupe, Carlotta (Mary Fabian).

Christine has never seen The Phantom, but, he communicates to her while she is in her dressing room, as he stands behind walls. He tells her she must give up all worldly pleasures and focus on her art. The Phantom wants all of Paris to take pleasure in her voice as he does. But The Phantom is not doing all of this purely for his appreciate of opera. He is also in love with Christine. Christine, while not in love with The Phantom, is infatuated by the idea of him and tells The Phantom she eagerly awaits the day they can meet face to face.

This is not welcome news to Raoul (Norman Kerry) who is in love with Christine and she says she is in love with him. However, she is willing to accept the demands of The Phantom and tells Raoul they can no longer see each other. The Phantom's ultimate goal is to separate the two so he may have Christine all to himself, but, can Christine ever love The Phantom? Can anyone ever love a man that looks like The Phantom?

The first thirty minutes of "The Phantom of the Opera" is meant to build suspense and create anxiety. Who is The Phantom? What does he look like? It is an approach we would see many movies made afterwards follow. The best example may be Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" (1975). You don't scare the audiences right out of the gate with the monster. You slowly build suspense. You create a buzz. You have characters describe what The Phantom looks like. And of course those descriptions will be exaggerated, which only heightens our anticipation. It is one of the few things about "The Phantom of the Opera" viewers may admire.

What is missing from "The Phantom of the Opera" though is a background story. The viewer only sees what The Phantom has become not how he became The Phantom. That would be an interesting story to tell and perhaps invest more involvement from the audiences' perspective. It could even make viewers sympathize with the character to a degree and add more drama or make us fear him more because we can understand his desire for revenge on a society which he feels hates him. Having never read the novel, it is said The Phantom was born disfigured. That's fine but that only explains his looks not his mind and furthermore the origins of his looks is never stated explicitly in this movie. There is no clearly defined motive for the character as it stands now to fully explain his actions.

There is also not enough of the Carlotta character in the movie. How does she feel about getting these threatening letters? Is she scared or does she feel it is all a hoax? If she believes it is a hoax does she believe Christine is up to it? Does this create friction between the two women? If she is scared this creates many opportunities for scary scenes between The Phantom and her.

At the end of the day though "The Phantom of the Opera" becomes another story dealing with the theme of a woman as man's downfall. You usually equate these kind of stories with film noir of the 1940s and femme fatales but its origins go back further to biblical times with the story of Adam & Eve, when woman tempted man to eat forbidden fruit. You will also see this theme in "King Kong" (1933) and "The Creature From the Black Lagoon" (1954).

However Christine is not completely innocent herself and the movie treats her too lightly by not judging her actions. She was perfectly happy with the attention she received thanks to The Phantom. She was perfectly willing to meet The Phantom's demands and not see Raoul again. It is only when the identity of The Phantom is revealed (in one of the most memorable moments in all of silent horror films) that Christine is now repelled because The Phantom is not the handsome figure she had created in her mind. That tells us something about society and our obsession with beauty. Don't trust ugly people. They are dangerous. If The Phantom was handsome I believe we would have a totally different movie on our hands.

"The Phantom of the Opera" is worth seeing despite whatever I may have written that is viewed as negative about the the movie if only for Lon Chaney's performance. This has become one of his signature roles and younger movie fans, that have never seen him in a movie, should be exposed to his acting. There are moments when Chaney and the movie do present The Phantom as a menacing figure and those are the moments which work best. There is a terrific sequence on a roof top that has a Gothic feel to it and we see The Phantom as a real threat.

If "The Phantom of the Opera" was to be the story of unrequited love, jealousy, betrayal and chandeliers falling on top of people, it does a marginal job of telling that story. It is not really a horror film either. I have a hard time believing even by 1925 standards the movie was considered scary. Still you can see how the movie could have been these things. The seeds are there unfortunately there were just too many chefs in the kitchen working on this movie all with a different contrasting vision which would make it too difficult to bring together into one story.

By the end of the movie the only way one can describe what has happened is by stealing a famous ending line from another movie. "It was beauty killed the beast".