Thomas Willett’s review published on Letterboxd:
As you can likely guess from my ongoing writing on the Frankenstein franchise, I LOVE these old school horror films. There's nothing else like it. From the iconography to the straightforward stories, there's a lot to unpack about these films that feel more cinematic than the later half of the century. Sure, you have Robert Englund or Andy Serkis. But I will always love Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney more. To me, they elevated their roles beyond the scares and went straight for the drama. I don't necessarily find these films scarier, but endlessly more fascinating.
So, of course I come to you with one gripe: I have not seen this film before. To a large extent, it popularized horror to the point of Universal Studios creating the various franchises. I am not sure if this 1925 film is solely responsible, but considering that The Phantom is one of their top tier "monsters" of which I have seen on countless collages, then it might as well be. Considering that I mostly knew The Phantom not from the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, but from the soundtrack (my parents are big fans), I associate him more with the opening chords of the overture. It's interesting to go into this story with almost zero prior knowledge.
The one compliment that I can give this film right off the bat is that Rupert Jilian is an amazing director. For a 90-year-old film, this never felt slow. He always kept the momentum going and shot things with a certain magnificence. The famous reveals all have emphasis and are cinematic in ways that still resonate. As much as this is Chaney managing to act almost exclusively below the neck (he was wearing a mask), it is also just a solid textbook for how to make a silent horror film. The imagery is powerful and its use of shadows to convey mysterious lingering figures is some of the best. Finally, the production design is gorgeous (though the Paris Opera House architecturally makes little sense).
Yet I am not sure how to feel about The Phantom at the center. As he is later known to be called Erik, he doesn't seem like a terribly interesting protagonist. He is a recluse absorbed in his own ugliness, growing bitter towards everyone else. I can sympathize that he wants love and that ending is pretty damn bleak. Yet, what is supposed to make him an interesting character? Is it Chaney's iconic and fearing face? It's an issue that began puzzling me halfway through and I never understood why, despite loving most everything else, The Phantom never felt like a compelling character. He was supposed to be sympathetic, but inevitably was too conflicting of a character to qualify.
Don't get me wrong, there's a lot that I love about this movie and it fills a great hole in my movie watching experience. I simply think that there's something I'm missing about the character. Why has he gone on to be so iconic when his "horror" arc is far less significant than Frankenstein, Dracula, or The Wolf Man? I know it was a different time, but for a film that gets everything else oh so right, I wonder why The Phantom just doesn't resonate as well.