As the ’70s drew to a close and the ’80s heralded a new decade of cinematic terror, one of the things that differentiated the blooming Nouvelle Vague of horror from its ancestry was an emphasis on innovative special make-up effects. The science of make-up prosthetics had experienced a substantial gestation period up until that point, and mainstream acceptance of the art was a long time coming, the first ever Oscar for special make-up effects awarded as recently as 1982 and presented to Rick Baker for his excellent work on the previous year’s An American Werewolf in London — a film as transformative for the horror genre as a whole as it was for its lycanthropic lead character David Kessler.
Prior to the late ’70s, there were scarce moments here-and–there that showcased the best the craft had to offer — Dick Smith’s horrifying work on 1973’s The Exorcist being a primary example — but generally cinematic horror make-up was largely functional, workmanlike and less than dazzling, often carried out by in-house studio make-up departments with plenty of technical and creative limitations, which lead to deficiencies that frequently manifested themselves on screen.
Strange, then, that one of the most enduring and frightening make-up jobs ever created appears in Universal’s silent black-and-white film The Phantom of the Opera, made way back in 1925 and offering a central character — played by the legendary actor and make-up artist Lon Chaney — as terrifying as almost anything that modern make-up masters can create.
What Chaney’s self-designed work lacks in prosthetic complexity it more than makes up for in clever ingenuity: the Phantom’s face is really little more than expertly-applied greasepaint, oversized, jagged dentures and strategically placed wire. (Many of the first generation of modern special make-up effects pioneers, particularly Tom Savini, cite both The Phantom of the Opera and Chaney as major influences, giving some indication of how respected the film and the actor remain to this day. Chaney, a talented make-up artist in his own right, wasn’t dubbed “The Man of a Thousand Faces” for nothing.)
If the cultural impact of the character is undeniable, what of the film’s general quality? It’s very good, indeed. Directed by Rupert Julian and presented by the BFI in this beautiful 3-disc set that contains as its main feature a restored, High Definition version of the colour-tinted 1929 reissue, The Phantom of the Opera is based on Gaston Leroux’s Gothic tale of Erik, a tortured, facially-deformed phantom who inhabits the Paris Opera House and commits mayhem in order to engineer a romance with resident opera singer Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin), with whom he has become infatuated. Deciding that Christine should commit to marriage and sing only for him, the Phantom kidnaps her and drags her down into his subterranean lair below the venue.
Addressing the requirement to flesh out the film’s aural space with music, classical composer and silent film specialist Carl Davis, whose best known work is probably the haunting theme for Thames Television’s seminal 1973 documentary The World at War, was commissioned to provide a bespoke score, and his lush soundtrack is fabulous, entirely sympathetic to the romantic, dramatic and horrifying peaks of the story’s timeline. Considering the film’s theatrical location, Davis’s score serves a sort of metatextual purpose too, as it references not only the orchestral sounds that would have echoed around the grand halls of the Paris Opera House, but also specifically Gounod’s Faust, the opera that is being performed in the film and the one that Davis drew much inspiration from for his own work.
Though the film’s production methods may seem archaic in comparison to the visual complexity and frequent excesses of contemporary horror movies, The Phantom of the Opera’s basic story of a hideously disfigured, socially marginalised person harbouring a dangerous and unrequited love remains cinematically timeless and relevant; if anything, much like F.W. Murnau’s chilling silent film Nosferatu, The Phantom of the Opera’s black and white aesthetic actually adds to its delightful period creepiness, regardless of the film’s narrative simplicity.
Above all, however, the film’s primary merit is undoubtedly the skeletal antagonist with an enduring power to shock; who can forget the Phantom’s grim, ghastly and gaunt visage, with rictus grin, stubby nose and black, hollow eye sockets? That face is still the stuff of nightmares, even 89 years after the film’s first run release. That’s quite an accolade, and demonstrates the extent to which the character has developed a life beyond the film’s narrative boundaries. (A cursory online search throws up plenty of merchandise results relating to Chaney’s Phantom). As a famous figure of cinematic horror, the Phantom entered into the realm of pop culture iconography long ago, and though he has since been joined by the likes of Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger, few can match the horrifying minimalism of Chaney’s grotesque creation.
Overall, The Phantom of the Opera is terrific: unsettling, beautifully shot and imbued with a dense and shadowy Gothic atmosphere. With such a strong technical and visual grounding it would have been difficult for Chaney to totally muck things up, and his performance is indeed integral, elevating an already solid horror drama into the realms of legendary cinema. The film’s sterling reputation is well-deserved and its influence unquestionable, and for fans of early Hollywood, the horror genre and even proto-special make-up effects, it’ll prove a very satisfying treat.
Even by the BFI’s usually high standards, the Institute has excelled itself with the depth and range of extras offered with the film. Included are Standard and High Definition versions of the film; the original 1925 version with an improvised piano accompaniment soundtrack by Ed Bussey; trailers for the original 1925 release and the 1929 reissue; one reel from the lost 1929 sound reissue; a mysterious short sequence believed to have been shot for overseas territories; film historian Kevin Brownlow’s feature-length documentary about Chaney; a PDF of a souvenir programme that accompanied Channel Four’s Silents TV series, and finally a fully illustrated colour booklet containing essays, reviews and full credits.