The Phantom of the Opera

The Phantom of the Opera ★★★½

Film #28 from Hoop-tober 3-D.

Even if you haven’t seen the 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera you’re probably already familiar with its most iconic scene: in it, The Phantom (Lon Chaney Sr.) regales the captive Christine (Mary Philbin) with music, including his ultimate masterpiece (the ironically titled “Don Juan Triumphant”). Christine approaches behind him, reaching for him as tension builds, and she snatches his mask away. He springs from the piano bench and his face is revealed: sunken eye sockets and crooked teeth, stretched sallow skin and skeletal upturned nose. I’ve read that audience members fainted at the sight of the reveal during original theatrical showings of the film and it’s a strong testament to Chaney’s brilliance and masochistic self-sacrifice. To me, though, the reveal doesn’t feel like the first glimpse of a monster. I never want The Phantom to recoil, to point accusatorily at Christine with the severe finality of an ax drop. I want him to sigh and say, “Well thank goodness that’s off, I was sweating like a dog under there and I couldn’t see the keys. Back to the music?”

Don’t mistake this for a safe, historical relationship with the film afforded by a 91-year remove from its initial release; I think this version of The Phantom hits all the necessary beats, and the ramped-up melodramatic histrionics of silent film performances are almost tailor-made for such lush gothic romance. I don’t think my perspective is informed by a familiarity with the story, either, or a kind of sympathy for the character developed through his “tragic hero/villain” characterization. It’s just that, in a way, everyone I know is The Phantom. I am The Phantom too, and we’re all united against a world full of Christines and Raouls. I refer to the character as “The Phantom” instead of “Erik” because, to me, the character is the commingling of physical form with superstition and legend: the empty opera box, the shadow on the wall, the ever-present threat of a descending noose, and to embrace that kind of legacy is to truly embrace the boundlessness of reputation and self-made mythology as legitimate reflections/extensions of True Self. “Erik” is an appeasement or an apology. I’m sure the idea of “Erik” is meant to signify a kind of kernel of humanity beating inside his deformed shell, a kind of fleeting potential for redemption. It’s just that I’m not sure redemption is necessary.

Whenever I watch an adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera I always want The Phantom to end up pursuing a Christine that’s interested in listening to his music, or a Christine that recoils from the mask instead of what’s underneath it. Or I want The Phantom to achieve a kind of self-actualization: to realize, “I’m not dropping chandeliers and hanging from gargoyles for her, I’m doing it because it’s fun to drop chandeliers and hang from gargoyles! I’m doing it because I am a proud chandelier-dropper, a proud gargoyle-hanger!” After all, there’s a whole theatre full of Raouls upstairs...why aspire to be one more? What’s the fun in that?