The Phantom Of The Opera (1925) is the second silent film in this month’s horrorthon. I’m always interested to see what the backing track is on the DVD for these films!
Before we start, though – if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you’ll know I can never resist a gratuitous ’80s music video, and when it comes to The Phantom Of The Opera, the Now! ’80s channel has been amply providing recently, with lots of videos made for songs from the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical version.
One of the videos they’ve been playing is this super saccharine performance of All I Ask Of You, with Sarah Brightman singing the Christine part (as ever – she also played the role in the stage musical) and Cliff Richard singing the Raoul part. Try not to watch the gross and awkward kiss in the middle of the video. Ewww!
Another one that comes on all the time is the video for the title song, with Sarah Brightman as Christine again and Steve Harley (he of ’70s glam rock fame as frontman of Cockney Rebel) as the Phantom. Apparently he was meant to play the Phantom in the stage musical but got acrimoniously replaced by Michael Crawford. Geth absolutely hates Steve Harley’s performance and won’t stop ranting about it whenever the video comes on!
Um, yeah, so we weren’t meant to be talking about the 1986 musical version, were we? I don’t think the 2004 film of the musical even counts as a horror film. I suppose we should crack on with watching the 1925 version.
The Phantom, in this version, is played by Lon Chaney, not to be confused with his son Lon Chaney Jr who played the Wolf Man and various other characters in the Universal monster movies during the ’30s and ’40s. Chaney Sr pulls off a brilliant performance, and is the best thing about the film.
The backing music on this DVD version is great from the off!
The setting for the story is the Paris Opera House, which was built over mediaeval torture dungeons. Usually in a horror film, I would ask why someone was stupid enough to build over somewhere that’s clearly going to be haunted, but I’m from Edinburgh, where the whole city is basically built over blocked-off medieval plague streets. In crowded European cities, that’s just the way it rolls – when you run out of space you start building on top of yourself.
There’s a pretty scene at the start with lots of ballet dancers on the stage, and appropriate performance music. Meanwhile, a deal is being done in a side room – the Opera House is being sold. The new owners are told about the ghost, but they laugh it off in glorious ’20s silent overacting style.
We’re introduced to the mystery of the cloaked figure in Box Five – apparently seeing his back is so terrifying that the owners run away at first, then find he’s disappeared when they look again.
We then cut to a fairly farcical sequence with about twenty ballet dancers running around the dungeons, frightened of the Phantom, and it’s not very clear what’s going on. ‘The Phantom is up from the cellars again!’ says one. One of them claims he has no nose (and I’m disappointed that nobody makes the classic ‘how does he smell?’ bad joke – maybe it hadn’t yet been invented in 1925), but another rebuts, ‘Yes, he did, it was enormous!’, indicating that the dancers probably haven’t actually seen the Phantom. A suspicious-looking man then appears from the cellars and goes upstairs, to the confusion of the dancers. During this sequence, they all run about in a pack, looking like little girls at play in their party dresses, which is a bit alarming given that they’re meant to be grown women.
The dancers speak to Joseph Buquet, one of the opera stagehands, who’s the only person who’s actually seen the Phantom. He launches into a florid description of holes in a grinning skull, yellow skin etc. – suffice to say the Phantom’s pretty ugly. Buquet also confirms he’s got no nose. Another stagehand tells Buquet off for riling the ghost. Anyway, Buquet shows them where he saw the Phantom, and all the others look terrified and run off, resulting in another few minutes of balletic running. There’s then another farcical bit with the fleeing stagehand accidentally climbing up through a stage trapdoor and getting chased off by some other workers.
Some dramatic music announces the formidable mother of Carlotta, the prima soprano at the Opera House. The Phantom has written to Carlotta, threatening her and expressing desire for Christine Daaé to sing the part of Marguerite in Faust instead. Despite the mother’s assertions that Carlotta won’t be threatened by ghosts, her daughter falls ill on the night – the Phantom apparently has some kind of supernatural power.
I still absolutely love this dynamic soundtrack – during the scene with Christine performing Marguerite, we get a track of operatic singing (I don’t know the opera but I presume the song is indeed from Faust), which is the only voice heard over this silent film.
There’s some mild drama with Philip de Chagny, brother of Comte Raoul de Chagny, suspecting Christine of being unfaithful to Raoul, but this isn’t really followed up. Raoul is not a very exciting love interest, but at least he’s not performed by Cliff Richard in this version. Boringly, he wants to get married straight away; Christine says she wants to stay in the Opera instead, because women couldn’t do both back then. Raoul leaves, and we see that a strange ‘melodious voice’ is speaking to Christine. ‘Tonight, I placed the world at your feet!’
We get another scene with Carlotta’s mother and her signature music. Carlotta is still being threatened, as are the opera owners (‘You will present Faust in a house with a curse on it!’). Neither feel particularly threatened (the mother thinks it must be Christine’s friends), and so Carlotta appears as scheduled. Raoul receives a note from Christine during the performance, telling him not to contact her again.
The ‘curse’ makes itself felt – the stage lighting starts playing up, and the opera house’s giant chandelier falls on the audience, causing panic. Among the confusion, there’s a bizarre faceoff between Raoul and the suspicious-looking man from earlier, where they just stare at each other for a few seconds. Raoul hides in Christine’s room and overhears a conversation between her and the Phantom. Christine goes through a secret mirror passage, which closes before Raoul can see where she went.
The Phantom approaches Christine, wearing a strange featureless mask. Apparently he’s ‘brought her the gift of song’, suggesting that she’s only able to sing so well because he’s cast some sort of spell. Christine seems hypnotised or somesuch, and faints. The Phantom loads her onto a horse that just conveniently happens to be standing there, and leads the horse away.
The Phantom takes Christine to his lair via boat across a hidden black lake, leading to a very pretty shot with her veil trailing in the water. In the lair, he declares his love in a very creepy way, and Christine runs off. She’s confronted by a large coffin in the side room. Apparently the Phantom sleeps in the coffin to remind himself of the sweet, sweet death that will come one day. He’s not a wannabe vampire, more of a proto-goth.
‘You’re the Phantom!’ gasps Christine, who’s apparently a bit slow on the uptake. ‘If I am the Phantom, it is because man’s hatred has made me so…if I shall be saved, it is because your love redeems me!’ claims the Phantom. Apparently his real name is ‘Erik’. This news causes Christine to faint again. I can’t stand these early female film characters!
We then get some pictures of newspaper headlines, which seems to have been a fairly common technique in silent film. ‘Christine Daaé Disappears Following Chandelier Disaster’.
Following a ‘night of vague horrors and tortured dreams’, Christine wakes up to a display of about six pairs of beautiful OMG SHOES! That would totally have won me over. Not so much the bridal veil and dress, which are totally creepy. The Phantom has left her a note, explaining ‘You’re in no peril as long as you don’t touch my mask’.
In comes the Phantom’s creepy organ music, which is the music most iconic to the story as far as I’m concerned! It seems to hypnotise Christine. The Phantom says the piece is Don Juan Triumphant (again, I’m not familiar with that piece of music so I don’t know if the organ music on the soundtrack actually matches this), apparently to signify love being triumphant, but with an ‘undercurrent of warning’. How romantic.
Christine, ignoring the note’s warning, rips the Phantom’s mask off at the dramatic climax of the music! The Phantom’s ‘deformed face’ makeup is brilliant, and was apparently created by Lon Chaney himself, who came from the old theatrical tradition where actors did their own makeup. Contrary to Joseph Buquet’s assertion, he does have a nose. ‘Feast your eyes, glut your soul on my accursed ugliness,’ moans the Phantom, whose dialogue apparently gets even more pretentious when he’s not wearing his mask.
Christine begs to leave, and the Phantom agrees, in order ‘to prove [his] love’. ‘But remember you are mine – mine – and you shall not see your lover again! If you do, it is death to you both!’ Charming guy. The frightened Christine agrees, but immediately breaks her promise by sending a note to Raoul, telling him to meet her at the Bal Masque de l’Opera.
We get a medieval calligraphy caption introducing the setting of the Bal Masque de l’Opera, and the footage for this sequence is colourised in this version, showing the attendees’ pretty costumes. Unfortunately, the Phantom shows up in costume to spoil the party. ‘Beneath your dancing feet are the tombs of tortured men – thus does the Red Death rebuke your merriment,’ he informs the partygoers, cheery as ever.
Christine and Raoul miss this doomy pronouncement, because they’ve escaped to the roof of the Opera House for a private conversation. ‘Are we alone, Raoul?’ asks Christine. Why’s she asking him? Can’t she judge for herself? Anyway, she tells Raoul about the Phantom…who also happens to be on the roof with them, having apparently hotfooted it from the main floor of the building.
Christine explains that the Phantom has put an illness curse on Carlotta again, meaning that Christine will be playing Marguerite the next night. How is the Phantom managing this? He’s clearly not a supernatural being, just a deformed man. Christine and Raoul plan to flee to England as soon as the performance is over. ‘She has betrayed me!’ wails the Phantom to himself. Why is this a surprise? Did he actually think his actions had won her over?
The suspicious-looking man is still creeping around. ‘Not that way, this way,’ he says to Raoul and Christine as they come down from the roof. There’s then a strange scene where a partygoer, who is fencing in costume as a musketeer, recognises the Phantom despite the latter’s costume and immediately faints. Silly, but I’m glad to see it’s not just the women randomly fainting in this film!
The suspicious-looking man comes to speak to the opera house owners. Ah! He turns out to be some kind of detective, and delivers them a letter. The Phantom, or ‘Erik’, is apparently an escaped violent criminal who was previously incarcerated.
Before the performance, Christine tells Raoul that the Phantom knows their plans – she has heard his voice again. She begs Raoul to save her; he’s sure the escape will be straightforward.
Down in the cellars, a hanging body freaks the main stagehand out. ‘Come quick! The strangler’s work again!’ There’s more group running, this time with stagehands instead of ballet dancers, but the body has been moved to the floor – it’s Joseph Buquet, who ‘knew too much about the Phantom’. His brother Simon vows to hunt the Phantom down.
We basically get lots of free tracks from Faust on this soundtrack, with both Christine and Carlotta singing various numbers as Marguerite.
While Christine is onstage, the Phantom grabs and kills one of the owners and appears in his place in the viewing box, causing Christine to scream. Her Marguerite wig is found on the floor in the confusion – she’s gone again. While Raoul is investigating the secret mirror, he’s joined by the detective, who introduces himself as ‘Ledoux of the Secret Police’.
Ledoux tells Raoul that the dungeons are ‘where he [the Phantom] himself was confined during the second revolution’. This throws the setting of the story into doubt. Up until now, due to the the fact that the costumes look very 1890s, I assumed that it was set around the turn of the century. If the ‘second revolution’ – which can apparently refer to either 1792 or 1830 – is within living memory, it must be set earlier, which completely contradicts the costuming.
In the cellars, there are lots of people wandering about. Raoul’s brother Philip is hanging around with a lantern, and some random stagehands are down there too. Ledoux somehow knows that Joseph discovered a trapdoor, which is why he got killed.
The Phantom, as expected, is angry with Christine. ‘You have spurned the spirit that made you great!’ He then launches into a rant that’s so florid I can’t tell whether he’s threatening to rape her or hypnotise her into loving him.
Meanwhile, Raoul and Ledoux fall ten feet down a hole to the cellar below, but they’re both perfectly fine.
‘I am human like other men – I will not be cheated of my happiness!’ rails the Phantom, which is horrifyingly reminiscent of the kind of creeps you get in today’s society who think they’re somehow owed sex and affection from women.
The Phantom overhears Philip, who has found the black lake, shouting for Raoul. The Phantom leaves Christine alone in the lair, wades into the water (ew), and goes snorkelling. Raoul, in another part of the cellar, calls for Christine, and she hears his voice through the wall. Meanwhile, the Phantom overturns Philip’s boat and kills him by drowning (how come nobody in these older films can ever swim?).
Raoul and Ledoux, on the other side of the door to the lair, tell Christine to look for the keys. Unfortunately, before she can find them, the Phantom returns with a campy villain line (‘The callers have departed.’) and returns to his seat at the organ.
Simon Buquet has discovered the Phantom’s hiding place and organises an angry mob of stagehands, so we get a nice ‘flaming torches’ procession going into the Opera House.
The Phantom catches Christine with the keys and then overhears Raoul in the next room. He’s apparently super prepared for such eventualities and turns up the heat, trapping Raoul and Ledoux. We get some great juxtaposition here between the three sequences of the angry mob, Raoul and Ledoux, and Christine and the Phantom, which are all colourised differently.
‘What do you offer for their lives?’ asks the Phantom. Ledoux finds an escape hatch from the overheated room, but the next room’s full of gunpowder. There’s then a weird sequence with some controls shaped like a scorpion and grasshopper, which the Phantom forces Christine to choose between – the scorpion to save Raoul’s life and submit to marriage with the Phantom, and the grasshopper to blow the whole Opera House up. She eventually chooses the scorpion, but it causes the water from the lake to flow into the gunpowder room. Christine begs the Phantom to rescue Raoul and Ledoux from drowning. After he’s done so, the angry mob arrive in the lair.
The Phantom runs off with Christine. Raoul, at first, is too weak to go after them, but after a moment he and Ledoux give chase alongside the angry mob. The Phantom steals Raoul’s waiting carriage, driving off with Christine in the back, but Christine escapes the carriage by jumping out. Before the Phantom can retrieve her, the mob catches up with them and Raoul runs to Christine’s side. We then get a chase through Paris with all its pretty architecture (well, actually through a Hollywood studio set, presumably, but they did Paris quite well).
The Phantom is killed by the mob and thrown in the Seine, and we get the ‘Finis’ screen.
In addition to the original film credits, we also get some credits for this particular version – apparently the soundtrack was done in the ’90s by a Canadian company. They did a really good job!
One sidenote is that I want to read the original book now – I think it would help me to make more sense of the story.
Another old film tomorrow!