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The Phantom of the Opera

Director: Rupert Julian
Cast: Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry

(US DVD: 1 Nov 2011)

Beware Box Number Five...and Blu-ray releases short on extras

The phrase Phantom of the Opera summons up for most images of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s glitzy Broadway show. Only cineastes and horror fans think first of Lon Chaney’s unforgettable performance that gave us some of the earliest and most classic moments in Universal Studio’s cycle of monster tales.


The new Blu-ray transfer of Phantom of the Opera might make some new fans, but probably not many. This is a film of the silent era and, lets be honest, this is an insurmountable barrier for too many viewers, even among somewhat serious film lovers. Moreover, I’m disappointed to note that the transfer of three versions of the film hasn’t markedly improved the look of what Image’s Milestone collection made available in the 2003 DVD release.


Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera is first and foremost a horror film, using at least some of the atmospheric elements and even some of the themes that would appear in Dracula and Frankenstein in the next decade. The sets of the Paris Opera are beautifully realized in both the 1925 and 1929 recut of the film. There’s a kind of romance at the narrative’s heart, as there was in the 1910 Gaston Leroux novel on which it is based. But, like most Universal Studios horror, it’s a twisted love story as much about death as it is about sex.


Chaney, “The Man of a Thousand Faces”, gave a performance that will seep into your dreams. Other than Max Schreck as Count Orlock of Nosferatu, its hard to think of another silent thriller that featured such a memorable performance. Most notably, you can see Chaney teetering on the edge of outright melodrama at every moment, a chasm he never falls into. Most fans of the great actor know that Chaney pulled off this performance while wearing an incredibly painful make-up rig, making his chops all the more impressive.


Three different cuts of the film appear on the new Blu-Ray release, each one with differing run times and sometimes with different scenes. All, it should be noted, feature pretty much the same footage of Chaney with some cuts to the seventy-eight minute version. There are new scenes in the 1929 recuts, scenes that put increased emphasis on the musical and performative aspects of Phantom of the Opera. However, as Jon Mirsalis notes in his feature length audio essay, no new footage could be included on Chaney in the recut since by then he had signed on as an MGM player.


Given the widely varying run times of these three cuts, you wont be surprised to learn that your experience of the film varies widely depending on which version you watch. I would argue that even the most dedicated classic horror aficionado will struggle a bit with the overlong 1925 version. Coming in at about a 114 minutes, the narrative becomes as labyrinthine as the passages beneath the Opera house. 


Most fans will probably watch all three and will, as Mirsalis suggests, use the very tight and very good 78-minute version to try to hook their friends. In terms of story and overall strength, even inveterate fans of the original will take pleasure in the 1929 reissue.  Almost every Universal “Famous Monster” fan likes to imagine what it might have been like if the studio had not jumped the gun on its horror cycle and waited til it could put out a talkie version of the Phantom of the Opera. Obviously we’ll never know but the 1929 recut gives us a wonderful and accessible version of the story and of Chaney’s unfailingly creepy and wondrous performance.


None of these transfers especially benefit from the Blu-Ray treatment. Audio is usually the area most improved by high-def transfers of films of this age and there is a noticeable bump in the quality of the sound. In fact, it might actually be fans interested primarily in the film’s music and dance performances that will most enjoy this new release.  New orchestral scores are available for each of the three versions, as is a short interview with composer Gabriel Thibaudeau who created a score for the ninety-minute recut.


Aside from the Blu-Ray transfer of all three version of the film, fans should not expect a lot of extras. This might be the weakest aspect of this release given the importance of the film in cinema and horror history.  Image packed in a wealth of extras in the aforementioned Milestone release, including an interview with horror historian David Skal, stills of deleted and missing material and an audio interview with the original cinematographer, Charles van Enger. 


It should be noted that the new Image release does contain the audio commentary of Dr. Jon Mirsalis, a Chaney scholar and keeper of his legacy. Mirsalis is a pleasant conversationalist in his commentary and, of course, a fount of “Chaneyiana”.


I once heard Director John Landis say in an interview that one of his favorite moments in any horror movie comes at the conclusion of the Phantom of the Opera as the angry crowd, presaging so many hordes of angry villagers to come, hounds him to his death. Chaney suddenly turns on them, raises his hand in a threatening gesture and the crowd comes to a halt as they, and we, think he is about to hurl some contrivance of death or disappear in a cloud of smoke. He does neither and instead, like the magician who has just fooled you, holds his hand open to reveal that there is nothing there. And then, before the crowd closes on him at last, he laughs at them.


Landis loves this moment because it embodies the tricks of the horror film trade that, in America, still owes much to the Phantom of the Opera.  It’s also a moment that sums up Chaney’s career and importance, the tricks he played on us to his own delight and his dark laughter at our astonishment.


Fans of classic horror have to pick this one up for their collection. I hope even fans of not-so-classic horror will give it a try.

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W. Scott Poole is a writer and an associate professor of history at the College of Charleston. He's the author of Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror (Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press), a book about the life and strange times of America's first horror host. He is also the author of the award-winning Monsters in America (2011). Follow him on twitter @monstersamerica.


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