Lon Chaney is widely known for his amazing talent as a makeup artist, bringing to life both the Phantom of the Opera and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. People remember Erik's grotesque visage and Quasimodo's hump, Chaney was much more than just a man in disguise. He was a very talented actor, and his ability to convince an audience that he was a character had more to do with talent than prosthetic makeup. That's especially true in one of his biggest role, the title villain in The Phantom of the Opera. Though the movie has been released several times to home video, from faded nearly unwatchable prints by public domain companies to lovingly restored deluxe sets, Image has released the film in HD at last. With this release you don't get just one version of the film, but three... the 1929 reissue edit at two different film speeds (24 fps and 20 fps) and the original 1925 release (though only in SD.) It's a nice package that belongs in any serious film collection.
Strange things are happening in the Paris Opera House, and the actors and crew blame the Phantom, a mysterious ghost who is supposed to haunt the building. The new owners of the venue start to take the rumors seriously when Carlotta, the female lead in the opera they are putting on, starts getting threatening notes signed "The Phantom." These notes warn the diva not to perform and the first time this happens she pleads an illness and lets her understudy go on, an unknown named Christine Daae. Christine wows the audience and that worries Carlotta so the next evening she does perform, although both she and the owners of the theater have been warned that disaster will strike if Christine does not star in the production.
That evening, tragedy does strike while Carlotta is singing. In the mayhem Christine goes to her dressing room and talks to a disembodied voice, one that offers her fame on the stage. She agrees to go with her "master" and the full length mirror in her room opens onto a secret passage.
There she meets The Phantom, a tall man who wears a mask that hides his face. Christine is nervous, but follows him five levels underground into the catacombs and long forgotten dungeons of an earlier structure that the Opera House was built upon. Arriving at The Phantom's lair, Christine gets scared but the imposing figure offers her love and safety as long as she never tries to remove his mask. Curiosity gets the best of her soon however and when she sees what lays behind the disguise she wishes that she'd left well enough alone.
This is often cited as one of the best horror films of all time as well as one of the top movies from the silent era, and the claims are true on both counts. The movie plays just as well today as it did back in the 20's. The scene where Christine removes the mask is still shocking, even though most modern viewers know what's going to happen.
The movie is impressive in scale too. The sets were amazing, especially the Paris Opera House that was ornate and detailed. That piece is even more impressive during the short Technicolor sequence in the middle of the film.
A large part of the film's success is due to Lon Chaney. Yes, the makeup he created for The Phantom is amazing and still impressive after all these years, but it's his acting that really brings the mad man to life. Because of the mask and makeup, Chaney couldn't really use facial expressions to show what his character was feeling so he uses his hands. Not broad dramatic gestures (as Douglas Fairbanks often used... just watch his version of Robin Hood some time) but subtle and nuanced motions that really make the film. He does act vigorously, especially at the end, but this only reinforces the fact that Erik, The Phantom's real name, is totally mad. It's a bravura performance that's justifiably famous.
The Blu-ray Disc:
This single disc contains three versions of the movie, each with a different audio track(s): the 1929 reissue presented at 24 fps accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra with an option for an older GAylor Carter organ score, the 1929 reissue at 20 fps with a orchestral score composed by Gabriel Thibaudeau, and the original 1925 version that includes a piano score by Fredrick Hodges. The latter is from a 16 mm print (though the back cover lists it as a "6 Millimeter Source Copy" and only presented in SD.
The menu for this disc was poorly designed. The main page requires viewers to select the score they want, rather than print. So if you're planning on watching the 24 fps 1929 version, you have to refer to the case or have memorized that the Alloy Orchestra performs on that edition. It's unnecessarily complicated.
There are several listening options, as detailed above. All of the audio tracks are clean and clear, which is nice, though I do wish they had included the Vitaphone soundtrack that was created for the 1929 rerelease. (That's available on the Milestone DVD set.)
As far as the quality of the tracks go... everyone playing on this disc is an accomplished musician, but I have to admit that I enjoyed Gabriel Thibaudeau's orchestral score much more than the others. The Gaylord Carter track is good, and probably the closest to the way most people saw the movie back in the 1920's, but it just isn't as impressive and powerful as a full orchestra. The same goes for the piano score. As for the Alloy Orchestra's track, I have to admit that I didn't like it. I'm not a huge fan of synthesizers in silent music scores, and their emphasis on percussion pulled me out of the movie frequently. I'm just not the audience they're going after.
Both HD editions of the film look very good, though the 24 fps version looks a tad better and has fewer print defects. They both present the film with great clarity. The level of detail is very good, and much of the film looks better than ever before. When the Phantom first reveals himself to Christine he's wearing a mask with gauze covering his mouth. You can see the texture of the fabric and even make out Chaney's mouth behind it. The two-color Technicolor ball scene also looks fabulous with the red costumes really popping nicely.
There seems to be an odd flaw with the 20fps version however. It looks like frames were doubled up occasionally. A few times during the movie the action will pause just for a quick moment, as if one frame was put in twice. This isn't distracting, though it is noticeable, but luckily it only happens a few times.
The 1925 version of the film is taken from a decidedly inferior 16mm print. It's soft and has a fair amount of damage. I'm glad they included this original version, there are some added and extended scenes including more of the opera, but it doesn't look nearly as good as the 1929 versions. (This is because Universal melted all of their silent films back during the depression in order to extract the silver from the nitrate film stock. Silent features from Universal are pretty rare.)
The extras are a bit meager on this release, though I really can't complain since there are three versions of the movie included. The main extra is an entertaining and educational commentary track by Dr. Jon Mirsalis, a name silent film fans will recognize for his accompaniment tracks on several silent film DVDs including the Milestone Phantom of the Opera. Dr. Mirsalis' commentary is lively and fun, and he talks a lot about the film and Chaney in particular. It's well worth watching the movie again with his comments running.
In addition to the commentary track there is a short interview with composer Gabriel Thibaudeau, a still gallery, film script, and a reproduction of the film's program.
The Phantom of the Opera is an amazing movie even 85 years later. It's still as powerful and gripping as ever thanks largely to Lon Chaney's magnificent performance. A wonderful looking disc and a great, classic movie. It comes Highly Recommended.