I think I can lose any explanation of the plot this time around. Though it has to be said that this second – after a lost German film apparently – film adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel directed by Rupert Julian (or by Julian with various scenes taken over by Lon Chaney or even producer Carl Laemmle if you believe parts of the literature, though the sources for this sort of thing are, as it is so often in film history, dubious, unclear and generally not to be trusted) might surprise a viewer more knowledgeable about later versions. It did at least surprise me quite a bit when I realized how little of the tragic romantic figure of later versions this phantom is: he’s an escaped criminally insane guy who taught himself music and “the Black Art” in the pulp supervillain mode, a guy who is as ugly inside as he is on the outside and whose handful of tragic intertitles generally come over as a thin self-pitying veneer to make all the evil shit he does sound better to the poor stupid woman he’s obsessing over.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you, particularly since Lon Chaney
is – obviously – the perfect man to let this particular murderous madman come to
life, using his today still very fine looking and conceptionally immensely
creepy make-up and melodramatic body language to full effect, creating his
Phantom as a villain so memorable, even if the film had only Chaney going for
it, it would still be worthy of your time.
Fortunately, there is also a lot else to cherish here: be it Julian’s (or
whomever’s) often immensely creative direction that lends a sheen of morbid
romanticism to the film’s first two thirds, and then elegantly shifts paces to
end up on a final act of energetic pulp-style craziness as befit this kind of
potboiler that needs heating to the point of hysteria. Particular highpoints are
the first time Mary Philbin’s Christine Daaé, at this point still half in thrall
to the Phantom (or “Master” as she calls him in a move that has no subtextual
resonance at all, no sir), ends ups in the Phantom’s lair, an unmasking scene
that lets the camera shift out of focus either on purpose or, as legend has it,
because the camera operator got the fright of his life from Chaney (a story that
sounds less improbable than it should because Chaney is just that great), the
bal masque sequence that sees the film shifting to two-tone Technicolor for a
few minutes so the audience can get the full impact of the Phantom’s appearance
as Poe’s Red Death, and the full on gothic pulp insanity of a third act that
features everything you’d care to ask for, be it death traps, evil
gesticulating, or a torch wielding mob of stage hands.
The highly melodramatic tone, the general strangeness of silent movies to the
modern eye, the sheer beauty of the sets and the high-strung acting come
together to form a kind of fever dream, very much in the spirit of Poe in his
more excitable moments and not so much in that of poor melodramatic old bore
Leroux, a thing that on paper might sound tawdry and silly but is in fact one of
beauty and awe.