Unsolicited Phantom Of The Opera Review
The Phantom of the Opera
Starring: Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry
Directed by Rupert Julian, Edward Sedgwick, Lon Chaney, a few other people
SPOILER ALERT: The following review contains hot, juicy spoilers. If you don’t want to know how The Phantom of the Opera, which was released eighty years ago, ends, do not read this review. Go hide under a blanket and wait until I say it’s okay to come out.
I never really noticed all the other times I watched it, but Phantom of the Opera has one of the most violent endings of any horror movie past or present. After the daring attempt to kidnap opera star and object of his obsession Christine Daae via stagecoach goes horribly awry, Erik/The Phantom finds himself at the business end of an angry, torch-wielding mob. The citizens of Paris chase this ghoul to the waterfront until he suddenly stops and threatens them with something hidden in his hand.
The crowd leans back in fright. Does he have a grenade? Is it a handful of snotty, plague-ridden tissues? Nope. The Phantom has nothing in his hand, and he revels maniacally in this trickery after revealing an empty palm. Of course, the duped Parisians react the way any sensible blood-thirsty mob would after being punk’d by an arrogant half-ghost.
They descend upon the Phantom and beat the holy living hell out of him.
The crowd really wails on Erik in that final scene, going to town on the poor schlub like a rented mule. They’re obviously not hitting Lon Chaney, but if you blink you might miss the one or two clear shots of the dummy. It’s almost as bad as Rodney King. A pretty brutal end for a guy whose only real crimes were attempted kidnapping, chandelier vandalism, and squatting in the opera house’s catacombs. The rest of the time, Erik is just some suave weirdo who’s a little manipulative and maybe a touch too dramatic. I mean, geez, Paris-folk, you actin’ like you bagged Freddy Krueger.
Not surprisingly, the savage beating that caps Phantom of the Opera is pure Hollywood invention. The novel upon which this film is based, penned by Gaston Leroux as a serial from 1909 to 1910, ends with damsel in distress Christine coming around and sympathizing with the sad, disfigured Phantom. She gives Erik a kiss, he becomes overjoyed, and eventually he lets her go to marry her regular-looking human boyfriend Raoul. Universal shot this sweet ending, but it tested poorly with audiences. Moviegoers wanted to see this creepy caped freak get his comeuppance. He broke a chandelier, for the love of God! So the studio threw together the ending we have today. Stagecoach crash, fake hand threat, ass-whoopin’.
Of course, Phantom’s production was so troubled Universal is lucky the movie ever ended at all. Director Rupert Julian didn’t get along with anyone else on the set, especially Lon Chaney (who eventually had nothing to say to Julian beyond one or two bitter “go to hells”). Rupe ended up walking out after the studio asked him to re-shoot most of the film. This opened the door for Edward Sedgwick, who got canned after bogging Phantom down with too many subplots.
At some point, Chaney himself stepped behind the camera to keep this movie (which was his idea in the first place) on track. The final print was put together by groundbreaking female director Lois Weber and her pal Maurice Pivar. Luckily for everyone involved, The Phantom of the Opera was a huge success, netting over $2 million in 1925 dollars (back when tickets only cost a penny and you could ride the subway for free, I’m guessing). It would not be the first nor the last time boatloads of money would validate a particularly grueling work environment.
The film’s rampant popularity was probably due mostly to Chaney’s incredible performance as the Phantom. It’s one for the ages, even when he’s hiding behind that weird half-porcelain, half-cloth mask of his (that thing may be more frightening than the grotesque face hidden underneath it). You feel Erik’s vulnerability, you feel his rage, you feel the mad rush he gets from pounding his organ all night in the basement. Of course, if you had a girl like Mary Philbin at your beck and call, you’d probably go a little nuts, too. She was quite a looker. The back-and-forth between these two is the real highlight of Phantom of the Opera, easily forgiving the film’s extraneous minor characters and handful of scenes that go nowhere.
In lieu of a sequel, Phantom was re-released in 1929 as a talkie with additional footage tacked on (including a sequence in a primitive version of technicolor). Today there are several different versions floating around, none of which are in excellent shape or complete. The 1925 version is in the public domain now and can be downloaded for your spooktacular viewing pleasure at the Internet Archive.
Oh yeah, this movie also inspired the extremely popular 1986 Andrew Lloyd Weber musical of the same name. Lonely twelve year old girls can’t get enough of that shit, can they? At least it doesn’t end with a gratuitous Phantom beating.
Final Score: Four non-cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers out of four.