Sometimes, “90 years” sounds like a really, really long time.
But then I remember there are people who are 90 years old and it just becomes sort-of-a-long time. In the film world, though, 90 years is practically multiple eternities. In 1925, silent films were still the norm, and some of the biggest that year were Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, The Freshman starring Harold Lloyd, and an effects-filled adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. It was huge year for film, even then only just halfway through its third decade, and a film that went on to be incredibly influential, but not as well seen by today’s standards, is Universal’s production of The Phantom of the Opera starring Lon Chaney. Thanks to Kino Lorber, we now have what is easily the most definitive edition of the movie, just in time for Halloween.
I have to confess, I don’t believe I’d ever seen The Phantom of the Opera prior to reviewing this release. I’d seen the iconic scenes and images of Lon Chaney’s big reveal, but I don’t think I really knew what the movie was about otherwise. Guess what–it’s great. The story, if you’re unfamiliar with the Gaston Leroux book, is that an opera composer was horribly scarred and lost his mind and “haunts” the corridors and parapets of Paris’ Grand Opera House. He becomes obsessed with a young, attractive chorus girl and demands that she, and only she, sing the lead in the show, or people are going to die. In the book, the girl grows to have affection for the Phantom, but in the movie, perhaps because they didn’t think audiences would buy a pretty young girl warming to a hideous creature such as he, he’s just and out-and-out villain.
Chaney’s makeup, which he did himself using wires (or so the story goes) distorts his own face to near-unrecognizable levels, is truly repulsive, and his performance as the troubled figure is easily one of his best. Not a lot of Chaney’s films are available at all, so it’s really great to get to see one of his most acclaimed films in such a gorgeous format. The other most famous sequence from the film, aside from the Phantom’s unmasking, is the actual performance of the opera Faust, which was shot in an early Technicolor process that allowed for full multi-color, not just the frame-shading that’s present throughout the whole movie. It looks vibrant, especially the Phantom himself wearing the bright red costume and skull mask.
Earlier, I called Kino Classics’ release a definitive one, and that’s not an exaggeration. Three full versions of the film are included on the 2-disc Blu-ray set, along with snippets of a fourth. The initial 1925 release was only seen by some people and parts of it were later recast, reshot, and re-released in 1929, featuring sequences Lon Chaney had nothing to do with. This is the version that’s most widely seen. This set includes this version of the film in both a 24 frames-per-second presentation as well as a slower 20 frames-per-second, which is what it would have been at the time, prior to the standardization of frame rate. There’s also the 114-minute not-very-well-preserved 1925 version, cleaned up as well as possible. As a bonus, there are excerpts from a 1930 sound re-issue which recorded new sequences to be put in with the advent of sound. They don’t work all that well.
Part of the joy of old silent movies are these different versions, and the fact that none of them had a standard musical accompaniment, allowing each theater to decide on their own, and use their own live organ player. This release keeps that tradition going, with the 24 fps version having two scores, one by the Alloy Orchestra and the other, an organ score, performed by Gaylord Carter. The 20 fps version has a gorgeously haunted score by Gabriel Thibaudeau as well as a very interesting and informative audio commentary by Lon Chaney historian Jon C. Mirsalis.
And if that weren’t enough, you also have the original screenplay, the original theatrical trailer, an interview with Gabriel Thibaudeau, and two short travel films about Paris made in 1925.
This is without doubt one of the best classic film releases I’ve seen in a long while, and believe me, I watch a lot. Such an important and under-seen horror film deserved to have such tender love and care and Kino once again has knocked it out of the park. Horror fans and fans of classic cinema, you definitely need to pick this up.
Image: Kino Classics
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!