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Phantom of the Opera (Ultimate Edition) (Blu-ray)

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Genre: Horror / Suitable for 15 years and over / Director: Rupert Julien / Actors: Lon Chaney ... / Blu-ray released 2011-12-12 at Park Circus

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      15.03.2012 15:43
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      An early almost-horror film with an iconic performance by Lon Chaney

      This Blu-ray/DVD set is £9 on amazon. For once there is a valid reason to have a DVD and Blu-ray in the same set - yay!

      This is commonly regarded as one of the first Universal horror movies (1925), a film that even predates the coming of sound. Lon Chaney gives his most famous performance as the evil Phantom of the Opera, a far less effete character than the opera singing romantic of later versions. If the film lacks the weirdness of the original novel, it has some memorable moments, and is assured a place in the hearts of horror fans simply by still existing - so many silent films are lost, including Chaney's vampire film London After Midnight.

      A 'phantom' lurks in the Paris Opera House. He watches the show every night from a private box, and starts to insist that his protégé, Christine, be given the lead role. (He's been giving her voice lessons from behind her mirror every night). Eventually he takes her to his lair in the catacombs where - alas! - she discovers that he has a hideous skull face and an undignified comb-over. Immediately falling out of love with him, she begs to be released. Meanwhile, her gallant but excruciatingly dull sweetheart, Raoul, tries to find her.

      Strictly speaking, it's not accurate to describe this as a horror film. The genre was in its infancy - the term 'horror film' wouldn't be coined for a few more years - and while there are films with plenty of uncanny moments, often made by Universal, they can't really be compared with the Karloff/Lugosi movies that poured forth from the studio in the 1930s. The silent horrors are fairly ordinary melodramas into which scary scenes or monstrous characters have been inserted, rather than films in which the whole purpose of the piece is to scare audiences.

      Still, this film is only remembered today because of its supposed status as one of the first horror films, and its star, Lon Chaney, has a cult following as the first horror star. He was actually a versatile character actor who only ventured into horrific parts a few times, but his willingness to contort his face and body and bury himself in makeup have given us an idea that he was predominantly a horror player. Also, of course, he was due to play Dracula when he died in 1930 - his death gave Bela Lugosi his big chance. Phantom was a Chaney vehicle, and it's his best remembered film today. He is the main reason to want to see it.

      It's a silent film, so all the mental adjustments you'd normally need to make when watching a silent film very much apply here. It is filmmaking from another epoch, and the pacing and style of filming - even the texture of the image itself - are every bit as alienating to a modern viewer as the lack of synchronised sound. Characters posture, and the whole style of acting screams pantomime at us, or would do if it could scream. This need not be a problem - after a while you will begin to pick up the rhythms of silent film acting and learn to appreciate it, but it never quite stops being weird and a bit awkward.

      The acting is largely typical of silent film. There are stock characters, from comic relief to angry matrons to young lovers. Christine and Raoul are sadly a bit weak, although Mary Philbin is very pretty in the way silent film ladies often are - i.e. she has a small mouth, big eyes, and a huge mass of hair. The standout is obviously Chaney as the Phantom. He moves with surprising grace, and his subtle hand gestures are obviously well practiced. The makeup is hideous - the great unmasking scene still carries a slight charge even today - and there are a couple of moments where he looms above the lovers like some hideous gargoyle that have an impressive intensity to them.

      The film itself is rather clunky and slow. Very few silent films can stand up to modern scrutiny without considerable allowances having to be made. Fritz Lang's best work in Germany, and FW Murnau's, along with Buster Keaton's comedies, all still work well. For most other silent films you're looking at a few amazing moments surrounded by acres of rather dull arm-waving. So it is in Phantom, sadly. The film really comes to life in the sequences where Erik the Phantom is carrying Christine off to his lair, or skulking around the cellars. These use shadow in an effective way (not as well as in Nosferatu, but well enough to at least allow for the possibility of being creepy). The sets are also wonderful in the subterranean lair.

      The sets throughout are actually very good. One thing silent films do well which was lost in the majority of sound films is large-scale spectacle. Huge sets were built at enormous cost. The Opera House set (parts of which still exist, the oldest set in the world) is huge, and Universal got plenty of use out of it in later years. At one point we see Erik rush past a life-size replica of the front of Notre Dame, which was a leftover from Universal's previous big-budget Chaney vehicle, Hunchback of Notre Dame. Even if the film itself isn't always exciting, there's usually something pretty to look at in the background.

      It's interesting to see what would become the horror movie aesthetic coming together in films like this. The shadowy, angular style of the sets was imported from German silent horror, and became a staple of Universal's horror pictures. The heavy emphasis on facial deformity conveyed by expert makeup would also dominate later horror. And the film contains an early example of a torch-wielding mob.

      There are two disks, a Blu-ray and a DVD, but happily they don't just replicate the same material in different resolutions.

      The Blu-ray is the pick of the two, obviously. There are various different versions of the film, as there are for lots of silent films. The Blu-ray presents the 1929 edit, which was actually created for re-release with sound in some scenes (largely sound effects and music; it apparently included some spoken dialogue, although that is not included in this version). There is certainly opera singing, which helps a bit with the musical scenes. This is different to the original 1925 edit, being half an hour shorter. Two versions of the 1929 version are included, one at 75 minutes and one at 90-odd. This is to allow for various soundtracks to be selected. All the soundtracks are decent enough, but don't particularly stand out.

      The picture quality is the main thing, of course, as Phantom is usually only seen in awful scratchy public domain prints. This has been restored, and looks pretty nice - as nice as it ever will, anyway. There are scratches throughout, and at one point the film has started to bubble up, leading to large blotches on the image. Anyone who watches films this old will recognise these as fairly typical of films of that age - film stock wears out and spontaneously combusts if left alone for long enough, and no one started seriously restoring silent films for a long time after they were made.

      The films have been hand-tinted, giving them their eerie colouring. This release happily includes the sequence in two-colour Technicolor in which the Phantom appears as Poe's Red Death at a masked ball - it's very odd seeing silent film in colour, even if the colour is basic and mostly consists of red. In terms of high definition, it is difficult to see much improvement from seeing a decent quality copy on DVD. I guess there's a bit of extra texture to the image, but it's too old to reveal much in the way of extra detail.

      The only extra is a film historian commentary. I usually don't enjoy these, but I got through all of this one, and I'd recommend listening to it to help get a grip on all the different versions of the film going around. The historian, John Mirsalis, runs a Lon Chaney website, and certainly knows his stuff. I was more than a little dubious when he said that Phantom regularly appears in lists of the greatest silent films ever made, though. It's likeable in all sorts of ways, but Sunrise it ain't.

      Apparently a soundtrack with the added dialogue scenes does exist, and it's a pity that it couldn't also have been included as an extra, for completeness' sake.

      The DVD has a copy of the 1925 version. This only exists in crappy old public domain prints now, and is beyond restoration. Consequently, the image is scratched to buggery. It's still watchable, and is the only way of seeing the 150 minute version, which actually drags a fair bit compared to the 1929 cut.

      There's a trailer included as an extra. I can't remember having seen a silent trailer before. It refuses to show us Chaney's makeup, and weirdly includes footage of studio boss Carl Laemmle sat at his desk smoking a cigar. There's also a short interview with a guy who composed one of the scores on the other disk - hardly essential viewing.

      Finally there are PDFs of the 1925 souvenir program, which is kind of interesting in a quaint way but the image quality isn't terribly good; and the film's script, which will probably only be of interest to serious film historians.

      This is an immensely impressive package for a film like this, and is evidently a real labour of love for someone. While I applaud the effort that's gone into it, I can't pretend that the film will be to everyone's tastes. I rather enjoyed it, but have seen it before a few times anyway. As a fan of both horror and silent cinema, I was never not going to buy it. But it's of more historical importance than something you'll sit down to watch over and over again.

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