Like that other creaky Universal monster epic, Dracula, The Phantom of the Opera is one of those classic films whose reputation trumps its actual cinematic worth. The shot of Christine removing the ghastly Erik’s mask went on to achieve considerable fame in the public domain via countless early Hollywood montages and commercials for Valium, but today this Carl Laemmle “super jewel” production is a textbook case of too many mediocre chefs spoiling the broth before it’s even had a chance to simmer. Bearing testament to this is the fact that, according to Phantom of the Opera historian Scott MacQueen, there are no fewer than five different versions of the film. (For the sake of clarity, the 1929 version is the one in question here.) Gaston Leroux’s minor novel about a spectral figure who haunts the Paris Opera House and engages in a minor Faust parable with the ingenue Christine is best remembered not for its compelling, tight plot structures but for its prescient gothic images.
Turn-of-the-century high society, underground canals and catacombs, candelabras, operetta—all play more of a role in Phantom of the Opera’s success than does the so-called romantic triangle between Christine (Mary Philbin), Erik (Lon Chaney), and the proto-monosyllabic stud Raoul (Norman Kerry). Small wonder that the film’s cheap and easy tropes have repeatedly attracted seekers of, well, cheap and easy sensation (first and foremost, Andrew Lloyd Webber). No doubt, contemporary audiences looked past the episodic, maladroitly tossed-off attempts at narrative momentum in order to feast their eyes on the opulent spectacle. Laemmle and company threw as much as they could into the film, hoping that some of their tricks would stick (Technicolor sequences, a hasty sound-sync reissue). But looked at today, Phantom of the Opera is a parade of missed opportunities.
The chandelier sequence is compromised by its odd pacing and laughable undercranking, which is no match for goofy Keystone Cops slapstick of the final chase. If Laemmle’s creation is reminiscent of another film from American horror history, it’s not Dracula or Frankenstein (though Chaney’s immortal monster certainly ranks with Lugosi’s and Karloff’s) but Carnival of Souls. Both films manage to occasionally transcend their overall lack of artistic intent with leftfield moments of dread that are all the more effective for their unexpectedness. Despite being a far lesser film than Dracula or Frankenstein, Phantom of the Opera still has one moment that outdoes anything in either: Chaney, in pursuit of an intruder, calmly walks into the dark with the briny waters of the underground canal and surfaces under the intruder’s boat. The grasping hands from under the water never fail to evoke chills.