Lon Chaney’s haunted stare emanates from most silent feature books. You look up anything on the history of Hollywood monsters, you would see it again piercing your childhood nightmares. What is behind this stare that scares so many people including famously Gregory Peck? Is he just as appealing as he is scary in a film with an operatic plot where every piece of action is overtly dramatic? Is the same care shown to the character as he did with the makeup?
Lon Chaney is a legend for creating believable villains usually hidden behind his own make-up work. For this role he used fish skin in order to get his nose and forehead to look more like a skull and egg membrane on his eyes to give off the effect of cloudiness. Yet this makeup does not matter as much as his performance.
The Phantom of the Opera takes place behind the scenes at an Opera in France. Therefore the tone of the film borrows heavily from the opera tone to its detriment. Every action and reaction is communicated as though they were still on that stage performing to people who are in the back of theater the whole time performing an aria. The most criminal of the performances is the woman who plays Christine Daae. She is supposed to be the hero of the film and yet the whole time I wanted to stab her for being such a freaking wimp about everything. She is kidnapped by the Phantom and made to dress up in her wedding gown and separated from the only thing she knew, the stage. If I were her, I would be pissed, but all she can do is breath like she finished a marathon. She stumbles across unmasking the Phantom purely because the plot called for it, not because she showed any ambition towards it. She is constantly getting saved and kidnapped again and yet to her it is no big thing. I couldn’t understand why the Vicomte cared for her or the Phantom wanted to control her.
The plot takes several swerves in order to showcase the production design and watch the Phantom be menacing. These parts were the best on-screen. One of my favorite sequences is the Masque Ball sequence. Colored in post production in order to highlight the Phantom’s costume as that of a red devil, this sequence was a great study in boiling tension. The Phantom descends the stairs in this blood-red costume with as much determination as a man bent on bloody revenge. At this point Christine has escaped and is in the arms of her Vicomte. She wants to have a good time, but the Phantom reappears to dash her hopes and maybe kill someone. He issues forth a ultimatium that would normally have someone shaking in their boots, but again Christine just starts to breathe heavily.
Lon Chaney is the only man to watch in this film. Without the ability to see his facial expressions through several masks and then finally through the insane amount of make up he had on, he conveys vulnerability, rage, and sadness with distinct motions. He towers over Christine with an imposing force that would make anyone hard to love. Yet when he shows off his soft spots, the sympathy comes back to him ten fold.
If you can get through the parts that don’t feature the Phantom, then I would suggest a watch of this film. In fact if you want to just fast forward through those parts, the plot is pretty simple to figure out just by watching the Phantom. Yeah. If Netflix Watch Instant on my computer only came with a remote, I would be hitting that fast forward button so fast…