“Feast your eyes - - glut your soul on my accursed ugliness!”
So cries Lon Chaney as the titular Phantom in an iconic scene. Lurking in the cavernous dungeons beneath the Paris Opera House, he has just been unmasked by the object of his affection, Christine. Chaney rails and beseeches the cowering girl to take in his horrific visage. This is a phantom somewhat removed from the Michael Crawford iteration in the hugely popular Andrew Lloyd Webber musical version from 1986.
Gaston Leroux’s novel, The Phantom of the Opera has been adapted many times for stage and screen, with the two mentioned above arguably the most noteworthy. This version, originally made in 1925 but re-released with newly recorded sound in 1930, was directed by Rupert Julian and stars Lon Chaney, (senior, if that need be clarified) in a bravura silent movie performance. Widely known as, ‘the man of a thousand faces’, Chaney applied his own make up for the film and the effect is spectacular. Incorporating clever dark eye make-up, a set of jagged, sharp teeth and wiring to shape his nostrils, the wretches’ first reveal is a joyous moment of horror cinema.
The tale told is an engaging, simple classic. The disfigured Phantom, Erik, is a composer who falls in love with Christine (Mary Philbin), an understudy to the prima donna in a production of Faust playing in the opera house. Existing as a ghostly myth, spoken of but little seen, and only in shadows, Erik plots a successful seduction and finally kidnapping of Christine during a spectacular set piece involving a crashing chandelier. Christine, however, is betrothed to her childhood sweetheart Raoul (Norman Kerry) who, in attendance at the performance and witness to the catastrophe, ends up hot on the trail of the elusive Phantom and his lost love.
As mentioned briefly above, the film had two releases on the big screen. Originally released in 1925, and doing well to the tune of $2 million, Universal decided to give it a re-release to capitalise on the newly born sound era in movies. Adding new scenes with new actors, sound effects and voice overs, The Phantom of the Opera was released again in 1930 and garnered another $1 million in takings. However, little of this version remains today and what does is, happily, presented as an extra in this set. Subject to a lukewarm critical reception upon release, though proving popular at the box office, (twice!) the movie was produced by Carl Laemmle for Universal Pictures and, as such, can be considered a forebear to his son, Carl Laemmle Jr.’s series of monster movies made for Universal in the 1930s’, beginning with Tod Browning’s Dracula. The film was fully tinted for its re-issue, using an amber, a vivid blue, a fierce red and a quite beautiful magenta whilst, in the phantom’s lair it reverts simply to black and white. This works well and allows us to fully appreciate Chaney’s magnificent make-up. To be honest, I’m not usually a fan of ‘colourised’ films but I find it used to great effect here. Also worth highlighting is a glorious chase sequence at a masquerade ball in full ‘technicolor’ and a rooftop scene, hand coloured to show the Phantom’s blood red cloak against the blue tint. The HD presentation of these, nearly 90 year old, scenes caused me to gasp, such is their brilliance. The film seems to have had quite a few scores through the years and little is known of what the original score entailed but the score presented here, by Carl Davis who re-scored many silent films for DVD release in the 90s’, is marvellous and rightly celebrated.
Iconic, lavish, grand in scale and sympathetically played by all, Rupert Julian’s The Phantom of the Opera is, for my money, up alongside Murnau’s Nosferatu and Robert Weine’s Das Cabinet der Dr. Caligari in the pantheon of true horror classics. Magnifique.
The main feature is a Photoplay Productions special restoration of the re-issue made in 1929, produced with help from George Eastman House and PresTech Film Laboratories. And, with expectations firmly in check, it is a thing of beauty! If you have seen the old, scratchy prints of this film you will be amazed at just how well it has scrubbed up on this Blu. Framed at 1.19:1, with vertical bars either side of the picture, the film shows hardly any damaged cells, barring one or two quick shots, no distracting flickering and very little of the flecks, specks and usual bits of debris which can plague old celluloid. The restoration and clean up job done here is nothing short of magnificent. The disc clocks a very healthy average bitrate in the high 30Mb/s range, the intertitles are nice and clear, the tints look vibrant, the Technicolor sequence is sumptuous, bearing in mind its age, and the Phantom’s red satin cloak really must be seen! The image is clear, detail is much improved and all in all, I am thrilled with this presentation.
We have two audio options available. A lossless 2.0 stereo track and a DTS-HD MA 5.1 track. I usually tend to prefer the plain old stereo track when I watch older movies but to hear the magnificent Carl Davis score in 5.1 is quite a treat. Both tracks convey the score adequately, of course, but the 5.1 mix allows for a bit more bombast when bombast is required.
BFI have provided a worthwhile set of extras for this release, both on the feature Blu-ray disc, and on a separate DVD which contains an excellent documentary by Kevin Brownlow called Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces. Made in 2000, it is an exhaustive 86 minutes, narrated by Kenneth Branagh, and it covers Chaney’s entire life and the breadth of his career. Featuring film clips interspersed with contributions from family, friends, contemporaries, film historians and filmgoers from the 1920s, we get a fairly comprehensive picture of the man behind the make-ups.
The Blu-ray disc has a plentiful supply of extra material to investigate too, featuring the full, original version of the film from 1925 in black & white with a new piano accompaniment. It is a scratched, fuzzy and wobbly looking thing but its merit is in seeing the films’ original cut and its inclusion is appreciated. There are original trailers for both the 1925 and 1930 releases of the film and these are both good fun with Carl Laemmle making an appearance in the 1925 one. Also, as mentioned above, we have the only remaining reel from the 1930 sound re-issue. This constitutes 12 minutes of footage from the chandelier and kidnap sequence and while it’s interesting to hear the opera being sung, I wasn’t particularly keen on the voice-over or dubbed sound effects. Certainly not when compared to the experience when listening with the score. Next up is the mysterious ‘man with a lantern’ sequence thought to have been shot for non-English speaking audiences. Tinted in red, the scene is exactly what it says. A man. With a lantern. In the sewers! Make of it what you will. Finally there is a PDF file and an excellent illustrated booklet. I would have liked a commentary - I know of at least two which have been recorded for other editions - but otherwise this is an exemplary set of extras.
A true classic of horror cinema and an important movie in its own right, Rupert Julian’s The Phantom of the Opera has been given the deluxe treatment for this BFI release and it is a joy to behold. The film has never looked better. It has a great, contemporary score and a star turn by Lon Chaney. Backed up by solid extras and a bonus DVD with the Chaney documentary, this is one recommended release. Note: This is a dual format release and only the BD and bonus DVD with the documentary were sent for review but the set does include a DVD with the same content as the BD.