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Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

I've been approved to teach an after-hours class at my middle school. It will be on classic horror films. A lot of kids have shown an interest in signing up, but I wonder if they realize what they're in for. When I say classic, I don't mean Friday the Thirteenth or Nightmare on Elm Street. I'm talking old movies. Really old. I'm starting with the silent classic, The Phantom of the Opera, from 1925.

Most kids nowadays turn up their noses at black and white films; I can only imagine what they will do with a silent film, when they actually have to read subtitles. But I watched the film last night trying to imagine what a 11-14 year-old would think, and the more focused and intelligent should be able to sit through it. It's a bit long for an old movie--1:46--but the story is simple enough.

As silent horror films go, The Phantom of the Opera isn't in the same category as the German expressionist works like Nosferatu or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but I think it's more palatable to younger children (and if the class is a hit, I can do more movies next semester). There's nothing about the direction of Rupert Julian that stands out--he creates a nice, spooky atmosphere in the catacombs below the Paris Opera House. But really, the film stands out because of Lon Chaney Sr.

Chaney, known as the Man of a Thousand Faces, isn't seen on screen for a good while, except in shadow, and then we don't see his face until the famous unmasking scene, when poor Mary Philbin can't resist and pulls his mask off, revealing his deformed visage. That scene made 1925 audiences scream and faint--let's see what it does to jaded tweens. It's his presence that holds the film--the romantic stuff with Christine and Raoul is rather tedious. Chaney, without use of words, makes an excellent psychopath, and one of the first film examples of what a good horror film has: a sympathetic monster.

I find it interesting, and maybe a little sad, then when one Googles Phantom of the Opera the first hits are from the Broadway musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, which I saw during its first run. That musical further emphasize the romantic nature, while the 1925 film made it clear that for Christine, there was no Beauty and the Beast thing happening. For her, it was all about looks, and she wanted a boyfriend that didn't live five levels underground. Even if he could play a mean organ. Who could blame her?

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