They called Lon Chaney “the man of a thousand faces”, an actor so versatile and skilled at applying his own DIY make-up that he could play anything from an armless carnival knife-thrower (The Unknown) to hunchbacked, bell-crazed fiend Quasimodo (The Hunchback Of Notre Dame).
But he had one face that became iconic: Erik, the hideously scarred villain who terrorises Paris’ divas in The Phantom Of The Opera.
Released in 1925, when Andrew Lloyd Webber was no more than an itch in his daddy’s Y-fronts, the $1m movie dragged Gaston Leroux’s little-known novel into the popular consciousness, where it’s remained ever since.
For Universal Studios, who produced and distributed it, The Phantom Of The Opera was designed to cash in on the success of Chaney’s misshapen Hunchback (1923). Little did the studio guess that they were kickstarting cinema’s still-in-utero horror genre. Chaney’s ghoulish, organ-playing fiend would be the stepping stone to the studio’s coming house of horrors: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man and The Wolf Man.
The horror, the horror
So why isn’t the Phantom as famous as his successors? Mainly because the movie is a sometimes turgid melodrama, erractically paced and weighed down by a bunch of iffy supporting performances.
It was a troubled production – nobody could nail the script, there were disastrous test screenings, reshoots and studio tampering – and it shows.
The tragedy is that The Phantom Of The Opera has all the elements of a horror masterpiece, as Chaney’s villain drags heroine Christine (Mary Philbin) down to his surreal, shadowy catacombs lair beneath the opera house. It’s grotesque and baroque: there are trapdoors and mirror mazes; crashing chandeliers and dank, festering sewers.
Yet the scares don’t always gel, the tragic, sympathetic Phantom of the novel (and later productions, including Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical) turned into a maniacal, fist-shaking pantomime villain from a Scooby-Doo cartoon. Subtlety has left the pipe organ-equipped building.
It succeeds in spite of itself and it’s all thanks to Chaney. The man of a thousand faces imbues this character with bravado and menace, whether sitting on a statue of Apollo on the opera house roof or snorkelling through underground sewers.
With his lank hair, black-ringed eyes and stretched nostrils as deep and dark as open graves, this Phantom is the missing link between Max Schreck’s cadaverous Nosferatu and the shambling corpse Boris Karloff played in Frankenstein. He’s the stuff that bad dreams are made of.