I have been in love with the Universal Monsters since I was three years old. That year marked the first time (and by no means the last time) I was Dracula for Halloween, the first action figures I can remember owning — Remco’s Mini Monsters — and my first major foray into reading, featuring the scholastic tomes you see to the right. There they were, in glorious black and white, ripe for the reading. It was through Crestwood Publishing that I learned all that I needed to know about Frankenstein’s monster, Wolf-Man, Dracula and his son, and many, many more.
But I was three, dig? How the hell could I know who they were? Kids don’t just magically wake up one day and feel an irresistible impulse to read about dark creatures of the night, unless they’re possessed. So where did I learn about these glorious icons of filmdom? Assuming that demoniac possession is taken off the table (and I’ve got more than a few ex-girlfriends and an ex-wife who wouldn’t be so ready to concede that point), I’ve got my mom to thank.
I’ve spoken before, sometimes at length, how I’ve got Mom to thank for my love of Star Trek — huge Trekkie, Mom was, and I think she had a girlish crush on Leonard Nimoy — and also for my introduction to the world of comic books. Thankfully for me, Mom also really, really dug monster movies. So it was with Mom’s gentle, guiding influence that I happened upon the Crestwood library, then the Remco Mini-Monsters, and classic cinematic fare like ‘Salem’s Lot or the inimitable Love at First Bite.
Tragically, it was to be another four years — an eternity for a child, and a length of time that almost doubled my lifespan at the time — before I finally got to see all of my old favorites for the first time. For, you see, that was when WPHL-17 out of Philadelphia started running the classic Universal Monster movies as their Saturday Matinee movie.
I was hooked. I was enthralled. And an interest that had begun when I was three years old was quickly cemented into a love and admiration that has stayed with me ever since. And now, gentle reader, I want to share that love with you. And what better month to do so than October? This year we’ve got five weekends, so I can give you five installments; October culminates with Halloween, when — as EVERYBODY knows — the monsters come to life; and October is the month my Mom was born, which makes this all the more fitting. With such a trifecta before me, who am I to refuse the Fates?
Okay. Enough rambling. I promise next week there won’t be NEARLY as much exposition. Maybe.
Anyway… on to the show!
Though there have been countless re-tellings — noteworthy among them include the 1943 version with Claude Rains, or the now-classic stage production by Andrew Lloyd Webber — none of them have surpassed, at least in my mind, this first adaptation of Gaston LeRoux’s 1911 novel Le Fantôme de l’Opera.
Lon Chaney Sr. stars as Erik, the musical genius and gadgetry mastermind who lives deep beneath the underbelly of the Paris Opera House and is better known to its inhabitants as the Phantom. Very few have ever seen so much as his shadow, and fewer still have actually seen his face. Those who have, traditionally, are not so long for this world thereafter.
Murder? Yes. Lunatic? More than likely. Yet beneath that psychotic exterior, Erik is, at his heart, a lover of music, and a faithful patron of the arts — namely, in this case, the Paris Opera, which he watches with rapt attention from Box Five in the Opera House. It is from there, we are required to infer, that he first sets his mutilated eyes on the young Christine Daae (Mary Philbin), an operatic ingenue. Taken with the young Christine, Erik begins to give her lessons in secret from a hidden chamber behind the mirror in her dressing room, and it is from more or less there that the film actually begins.
By now, most of you know the tale — Erik convinces Christine to leave her lover Raoul, the Vicomte de Chagny (Norman Kerry) to go with him to his underground lair, a world purported to be full of music and love. Erik promises her the world with the caveat that she must Never Look Under His Mask Ever. Naturally, because she’s stupid, she does, all hell breaks loose, a chandelier falls, the Phantom kidnaps Christine and… well, just in case you have been living in a cave, I won’t spoil the ending for you.
When I was a kid, the concept of no color in a movie didn’t scare me off, but the very concept of a silent movie bothered the hell out of me. I never thought I’d be able to get into a picture that required so much visual attention and so much reading with absolutely no auditory stimulation. Yet the minute I saw The Phantom of the Opera, all of my doubts and hesitation disappeared and I was glued to my television set for the next 93 minutes. And that was enough for me.
That is, until ten years ago, when The Phantom of the Opera: The Ultimate Edition was released on DVD. Contained on this two-disc collection are both the original 1925 version, and the 1929 re-release, and THAT one, my friends, is the one you want to watch.
The 1929 edition has several features that make it a tad more palatable to modern audiences. First, it contains several soundtracks by modern composer Carl Davis, as well as the original studio soundtrack by Jon Mirsalis. There are several spots where voices are dubbed over, including crowd sequences, operatic numbers, and some bits of actual dialogue. These additions, made chiefly to help the film remain engaging to moviegoers in the wake of the introduction of the talkies, certainly helped keep ME entertained sitting in my easy chair in the wee small hours of the morning.
The chief allure, however, is the restoration of the original Technicolor masquerade ball sequence. Apparently a few sequences from the film were shot in color for the top general release prints, including scenes from “Faust” as well as the Bal Masque scene. Prizmacolor sequences were shot for the “Soldier’s Night” introduction, and Handschiegel was used for the Phantom’s notes and red cape on the rooftop. The only surviving color, however, is the Technicolor Bal Masque, and it is gloriously included in this version.
Technical gadgets and sound gizmos aside, the real allure — and the key to the film’s endurance over the past 88 years — lies solely with Lon Chaney Sr.
Besides giving a chilling performance, Chaney, known as the Man of 1,000 Faces, famously applied his own make-up in each of his films, and The Phantom of the Opera was no exception. According to the film’s entry on the Internet Movie Database: “The Phantom’s makeup was designed to resemble a skull. Lon Chaney attached a strip of fish skin (a thin, translucent material) to his nostrils with spirit gum, pulled it back until he got the tilt he wanted, then attached the other end of the fish skin under his bald cap. For some shots, a wire-and-rubber device was used, and according to cameraman Charles Van Enger it cut into Chaney’s nose and caused a good deal of bleeding. Cheeks were built up using a combination of cotton and collodion. Ears were glued back and the rest was greasepaint shaded in the proper areas of the face. The sight was said to have caused some patrons at the premiere to faint.”
Rick Baker, eat your heart out.
The Phantom of the Opera has everything you could want from a monster movie: love, betrayal, a chilling antagonist, thrills, screams, and a face that not even a mother could love. Don’t let the silent nature of the film keep you from it. The Phantom of the Opera is one of the finest horror films ever made, and is a perfect introduction to the world of the Universal Monsters.
Next Week: “He went for a little walk…”