For many American film lovers, it is 1925's The Phantom of the Opera that defines horror in the silent film era. Lon Chaney's Erik may not have modern moviegoers fainting as legend says they did when Christine reveals his deformed skeleton-like face, but there's no doubt he holds a special place in horror fans' hearts to this day.
|The Phantom Of The Opera|
Synopsis - Spoilers Included
The new owners of the Paris Opera House refuse to believe the previous owners' warnings about the holder of box 5--a "phantom of the opera"--even though the phantom's presence is well-known and openly discussed among the opera's performers. The mysterious phantom has eyes that are just "ghastly beads", compared to holes in a grinning skull, explains stagehand Joseph Boquet, who claims to have actually seen the phantom. Over that skull, he continues, is stretched tight yellow skin with only two large holes where his nose should be.
Meanwhile, the opera's pima donna, Carlotta, is sent a note from the phantom, telling her to relinquish the role of Marguerite to her understudy, Christine. Carlotta's enraged mother confronts the opera's owners, informing them that Carlotta will not be scared off by any note. On the day of the performance, however, Carlotta becomes suddenly and mysteriously ill. Christine takes her place.
Attending the performance is Christine's beloved, Raoul, who is a viscount. He visits Christine in her dressing room after the performance and informs her that now that she's been allowed to sing, and gotten it out of her system, they will be married. Christine quickly informs him that she has no intention of ever leaving the opera and tells him to forget their love. He leaves but listens through the door to hear Christine talking to someone who implies that Christine's new role as Marguerite was all his doing. Calling himself Christine's "master" he warns her to abandon all her worldly concerns and think only of her career. He also informs her that he shall someday soon demand her love. She agrees.
Carlotta is sent another letter from The Phantom. This one is even more ominous than the first. Again, she is advised to play sick and miss her performance. If she does not, the letter warns, she should prepare herself for "a great misfortune". Carlotta's mother again confronts the opera company's owners, this time openly accusing Christine of plotting against her daughter.
As Carlotta's mother makes her dramatic exit, a gloved hand appears from an opening in the wall and tosses an envelope onto the owners' desk. It is signed "The Phantom" and warns that if Christine does not sing Marguerite the following evening the opera house will operate under the phantom's curse.
Carlotta decides to perform, with the company owners nervously watching from their box. Meanwhile, Raoul tries to contact Christine but is told not to contact her again. She offer no explanation beyond, "I cannot explain."
Carlotta makes it partway through her performance before the house lights begin to flicker. The audience becomes nervous as stagehands hurry to find, and fix, the problem. As Carlotta perseveres, the massive chandelier begins to sway.
The now-terrified audience tries to escape but many are injured as the fixture falls to the floor below.
Christine flees to her dressing room, unaware that Raoul has beaten her there and is hiding in an alcove. The phantom, who used secret passageways to escape after dropping the chandelier, is also unaware of Raoul's presence.
The phantom tells Christine that it is time; she answers that she is ready and waiting for her master. She walks toward her full-length mirror, as he instructs, and on through an opening that appears as Raoul watches.
In the passageway, Christine finally meets the phantom but is frightened by his masked face. As he tries to reassure her, she falls into a trance-like state and allows him to lead her to a waiting horse, which carries her deeper into the opera house's cellar levels, until they reach a small lake, which they cross in a small boat.
In the phantom's hideout, Christine at last gets her first good look at her "master" and his still-masked face. As she recoils in horror he tells her that he brought her there because he loves her. She seems to come to her senses and tries in vain to escape. Finally, she understands that the "master" who coached her through the walls of her dressing room is really the phantom of the opera. She faints.
Christine awakens the next morning in an opulent bedroom, fully furnished with a new wardrobe. She also finds a note from Erik, assuring her that she will be in no danger so long as she never touches his mask. She follows the sound of a piano and finds Erik playing. Suddenly unable to control herself, she rips off his mask and is horrified when he turns to look at her.
After some pleading, Christine is given permission to return to the opera house for one final performance. But if she sees Raoul, he tells her, they will both die.
After returning to the surface, Christine is able to slip Raoul a note, asking him to meet her at the opera's yearly masked ball, which is to be held the next evening. She also warns him to beware because she will not be alone.
At the ball, Christine finds Raoul but they are spotted by Erik, who is dressed as the Red Death. Christine and Raoul head to the roof of the opera house. With Erik listening, Christine tells Raoul about the phantom of the opera and begs Raoul to save her. They plan to escape to England immediately after Christine's final performance the next evening.
Just before the curtain is to rise, the stagehand Joseph Boquet is found hanged backstage. The stagehands who examine the body recognize the rope and the knots as those of a well known killer. But the show must go on and so Christine prepares to plays Marguerite with Raoul and his protective older brother in attendance.
Doing a brief lights-out, Christine disappears from the stage. With help from a stranger, who reveals himself to be a policeman working undercover to find Erik, who is, in fact, escaped from a facility for the criminally insane, Raoul sets off through the mirror passageway. Erik, the policeman says, knows the secret passages well because he was held in the building's torture chambers years ago. He also explains that Boquet's discovery of a trapdoor cost him his life.
Raoul's brother, who has lagged behind, is drowned when Erik capsizes the small boat Philipe was using to cross the lake. Upstairs, Joseph Boquet's brother has organized a mob and intends to find the phantom's hiding place and take his revenge.
Raoul and the policeman find themselves trapped in one of the dungeon's torture chambers. Erik tells Christine that the men will bake to death as she watches from the hideout. Moments from death, the men escape through a trapdoor but find themselves trapped again--this time in a room full of gunpowder.
After some taunting, Christine agrees to marry Erik if he spares the men's lives. But it's a trick and Christine ends up nearly drowning them as she turns a lever Erik claims will free them but which actually empties the lake into the chamber in which they remain trapped.
At the last possible moment, Erik displays mercy, opens a trapdoor and pulls both men into his hideout. As the mob arrives, Erik pulls Christine away and attempts to flee in the carriage Raoul intended as his own escape vehicle.
Christine throws herself from the carriage, causing Erik to brake too hard and overturn. As Raoul protects Christine, the throng of people chase down Erik. The phantom of the opera makes one last, small stand, revealing the depth of his madness, before he is beaten to death by the crowd and thrown into the river.
LISA'S NOTE: In the interest of accessibility for the widest possible audience, I based my review off the version at archive.org. "My" version does vary from Wikipedia's.
Why The Phantom Of The Opera Is A Must-See Film
The Phantom Of The Opera is really about that one single scene in which Christine sneaks up on Erik as he plays his piano and rips away his mask, revealing Erik's facial deformity. Lon Chaney was a self-taught master and a true pioneer in the field of special effects makeup.
But Phantom is also a must-see, in my opinion, because the story has become such a part of the Western entertainment lexicon. Watch the film at least once, if only to understand why Erik and Christine continue to intrigue audiences today.
Lisa's Favorite Scene
No single scene in Phantom really sticks out to me as a favorite. If I had to choose one, it would be the scene on the roof in which Erik overhears Christine and Raoul making plans to run away together. Lon Chaney's anguish, masked though it was, is evident and the blowing cape of his costume . . . beautifully shot.
Closing Thoughts On Phantom
There is something quite off-putting about using a congenital facial deformity for shock value, especially when it is tied to mental illness and moral bankruptcy. And while it's unfair, perhaps, to hold 1920s filmmakers to today's more politically correct standards, it seems incredibly insensitive to the millions of young men who were left permanently disabled and the millions more who were left disfigured by injuries suffered in World War 1.
Put those things aside, though, and we're still left with a film that really is about that one single scene. At a time when other films were routinely layering in backstories and giving us strong, believable lead performers, The Phantom Of The Opera seems to take a step or two backward. See what I mean here.