It was sometime in the late 90’s or early 2000’s. My father, my brother, and I were at the local Blockbuster, now a cultural relic, looking for a movie to distract us from the hot Arizona afternoon where the sweltering heat forced us to stay indoors. My brother and I had recently finished all of the Goosebumps movies and thought that it was time for us elementary school kids to move on to something more mature, something more intellectual, something that would undoubtedly increase our social capital on the school playground. We picked out The Phantom of the Opera from the “Classics” shelf and proudly took our selection to our father who, upon seeing our choice said, “Oh that’s a silent movie you won’t like that.” So we put it back. Silent films are for nerds and squares and my brother and I were neither. I think we ended up getting Psycho instead. Now that movie had blood and a naked woman! Oh golly gee willikers!
No it wasn’t until high school that I finally watched The Phantom of the Opera. And while it was definitely not my favorite horror film, and still isn’t, Phantom’s powerful resonance is undeniably felt to this day and therefore cannot be ignored as a canonical horror film.
Phantom’s story is familiar to all – horror film buff or not – thanks to the multiple remakes and the wildly successful Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and film adaptation. The story follows a young, aspiring prima donna Christine Daae (Mary Philbin) at the Paris Opera House. Seeking fame and fortune, Christine forges a Faustian bond with the infamous, masked Phantom (Lon Chaney) who haunts Box 5 of the Opera. Driven by his own mad obsession for Christine, and undoubtedly the prospect of a glorious life above ground, far away from the catacombs where he was forced to live due to his grotesque deformities, the Phantom plagues the Paris Opera, assuring that Christine gets all lead parts. But in return for these deeds, the Phantom seeks to possess Christine as his lover. Nothing comes for free! That’s just good business on the Phantom’s part.
The creation of the film was just as plagued by misfortune as the Phantom’s Opera House itself, having undergone multiple director changes and failed previews (some audience members walked out of the theater in early showings). The end result was a film that straddles the line between horror and melodrama, psychological thriller and romance. Or even an early BDSM film (The Phantom lives in a torture chamber and forces Christine to call him “Master” – you do the math).
And while Phantom does not contain the artistry of other horror films of the age like Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari nor F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, Phantom’s power lies within the power of the spectacle. The crashing chandelier, the enormous Opera House set, and, of course, Chaney’s horrifically terrific makeup, Phantom dazzles audience members with its sheer scope. The writing is definitely not subtle and the acting (besides Chaney) is not the best, but in terms of spectacle, it goes unmatched, influencing later block-buster horror films like The Mummy and Frankenstein. It is due to this impressiveness that Phantom is a movie that must not be missed by any lover of the genre.
Review by: Alex Schultz