In many ways, the 1925 Phantom of the Opera is the granddaddy of the American horror film, though it’s perhaps edged out of that position by the Goldwyn production A Blind Bargain (a seemingly lost 1922 work that also starred Lon Chaney). Phantom certainly marks the starting point of Universal Pictures being the “home of horror,” even if the movie was typical of the period, in that the film shies away from the genuinely supernatural. Even so, the movie still holds a place as one of the great horror films — an interesting accolade for a movie that can at best be described as uneven.
Why then is the film so highly regarded? The simple answer is, of course, Lon Chaney. But that answer is both true and simplistic. If it was all Chaney, there wouldn’t be a string of remakes of the story from 1943 through 2004, since no subsequent version benefited from the inclusion of Chaney. No, there’s something more — something inherent in the romantic mystery of the Gaston Leroux pulp novel from which all versions are drawn. That, and the spectacle of the story — something that even a director as flat-footed as Rupert Julian couldn’t bury.
Of course, it’s debatable just how much of this Phantom belongs to Julian, since the “more exciting” ending that’s on the film was shot by Edward Sedgwick, and since Chaney himself took over direction when he was dissatisfied with Julian’s work. And since so much of what works about the film rests on Chaney’s shoulders, it’s not unreasonable to suspect he may have had something to do with the spectacle, too. It really is Chaney’s show.
The other performances — Arthur Edmund Carewe’s enjoyably hammy mysterioso detective to one side — are rarely more than adequate, and sometimes not even that. Chaney’s is brilliant from start to finish. For his performance, for the beauty and scale of the set design, for the opulence of the restored two-strip Technicolor Bal Masque, for all this, Phantom remains a must-see of silent film.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke