Y’know, I really don’t have a lot to say about this one.
That is not a reflection of the quality of the film, mind you. Lon Chaney is suitably creepy as the Phantom – and not entirely because he looks creepy, either. However, while watching it, I struggled throughout to avoid thinking of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. I’ve never even seen the Webber show – but if you spend three years in drama school surrounded by musical theater buffs, “Music Of The Night” becomes a permanent part of your inner monologue.
One way the film distinguishes itself is in tone; Webber’s musical was more of a tragic swooning romance, while the film places it firmly in the gothic-horror camp. (Compare and contrast – above his how the 1925 film looks, and below is how Webber’s unmasked Phantom looks.)
The basic plot is the same in both cases, though. Christine, an up-and-coming singer, is the understudy for the prima donna at Paris’ opera. She gets a chance to go on one night – unbeknownst to her, it is because the managers have received an anonymous note threatening the lead. She aces the performance and wins the additional admiration of Raoul, a former childhood friend now seeing her in a more romantic light. Christine turns him down, though, claiming that she has pledged herself to her career and to the “Spirit of Music”, the mysterious disembodied voice who has been tutoring her at the opera.
Soon this “Spirit of Music” promises to reveal himself to her – all she has to do is step through a secret door that has been secretly hiding in her dressing room all this time….when Christine does so, she finds not the angelic sprite she has been imagining, but a masked dude who has been living inside the walls.
He claims that the whole plan – posing as the Angel of Music, tutoring her, getting her on the stage – was because he was in love with her. He brings her to his home tucked inside Paris’ cavernous sewers, an underground space he has lavishly decorated – and promises her continued riches and fame along with his devotion if she’ll only be his. Oh, there’s just one other condition – she must never see him unmasked. However, after only a day, Christine sneaks up behind him while he plays the organ – and tugs off the mask.
The livid Phantom insists that now instead of persuading her to marry him, he’s now going to force her. Christine begs for one last appearance on the opera stage, though – secretly intending to get word to Raoul so he can rescue her – and the Phantom relents, warning her that she can’t talk to anyone else outside of the show. And he’ll be watching!….
Interestingly, the Andrew Lloyd Webber Phantom adaptation wasn’t the only thing I thought of while watching this. In the sequence when Christine is first exploring the Phantom’s lair, I found myself thinking of the film V for Vendetta, when the masked man “V” first brings young Evie to his underground “Shadow Gallery”.
There are actually some similarities, if you think about it – both the Phantom and V have taken young women under their protection, both have lavish underground lairs, both have an appreciation for fine art, and both are disfigured men hiding behind masks. However, V’s goal is more of a sort of boot camp – he’s recognized a bit of a kindred spirit in Evie, and is hoping to train her; he also promises her that she can leave after a year. The Phantom is hoping for a more intimate relationship, with Christine as his wife.
And somehow that bit feels creepiest of all. It’s an element that’s softened a bit in Webber’s musical, and his version shows Christine relenting a bit; but still, the Phantom’s whole argument is, “I’ve done all of these things for you because I’m obsessed with you, so that means you have to love me back.” Forget the makeup, forget the booby traps – that argument was the scariest thing the Phantom did in this film.