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Thursday, October 15, 2020

Feast Your Eyes: The Phantom and the Rise of Classic Horror [Gods and Monsters]

In Bride of Frankenstein, Dr. Pretorius, played by the inimitable Ernest Thesiger, raises his glass and proposes a toast to Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein—“to a new world of Gods and Monsters.” I invite you to join me in exploring this world, focusing on American horror films from the dawn of the Universal Monster movies in 1931 to the collapse of the studio system and the rise of the new Hollywood rebels in the late 1960’s. With this period as our focus, and occasional ventures around the world and to earlier and later times, we will explore this magnificent world of classic horror.

Horror films are as old as cinema itself and some of the most notable pioneers in film created them. Georges Méliès produced several short horror films, often starring himself as the devil, including The Haunted Castle (1898) and The Damnation of Faust (1903)—which rivals his most iconic film, A Trip to the Moon (1902), in vision and innovation—leaving lasting imprints on the genre. Thomas Edison, inventor of the Kinetoscope film camera and, in some ways, the movie industry itself, produced a famous version of Frankenstein (1910) that was thought lost for decades until recently unearthed. D.W. Griffith produced the Edgar Allan Poe-inspired films The Sealed Room (1909) and The Avenging Conscience (1914), which draw largely from the story “The Tell-Tale Heart” and the poem “Annabelle Lee.” There were no less than three versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, all of them short one or two-reelers for Nickelodeons, produced before the outbreak of World War I.

But the modern horror film was born of fire, blood, and steel.

Germany’s film industry rose from the ashes of The Great War, a horrifying flu pandemic, and devastating economic collapse. Limitations of resources necessitated creative imagination and ingenuity which led to the single most important influence on horror, and perhaps all film, for a generation: German Expressionism. Key horror films in the movement include The Golem (1920), The Hands of Orlac (1924), and two films from true cinematic trailblazer and master filmmaker F.W. Murnau, Nosferatu (1922) and Faust (1926) just to name a few. But the most influential of them all is Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), a genuinely innovative, effective, and creepy film that has cast an extremely long shadow over the past 100 years of horror.

‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’

Meanwhile, back in the United States, the Twenties were roaring, and the movie business was booming. Prohibition went into effect in January of 1920 and though many Americans found their way into the speakeasies (though perhaps not as many as gangster pictures of the ‘30s would have us believe), many more found their way into the elaborate movie palaces that had sprung up across the country. Audiences flocked to see glamorous stars like Mary Pickford, Clara Bow, and Douglas Fairbanks in big budget spectacles; laugh at Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd; and cry with Rudolph Valentino and Greta Garbo. In the horror genre, stage megastar John Barrymore could be seen playing the lead duel role in one of two versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde released in 1920. But the most diverse actor of his time was the one they called “The Man of a Thousand Faces”—Lon Chaney.

By 1925, Chaney was already a massive star having worked his way up from bit parts in short films (most of which are lost) to major and even starring roles in The Penalty (1920—where he plays a double amputee), Oliver Twist (1922) as Fagin, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) as Quasimodo in an elaborate (and agonizing), full body makeup. In these and others, he became well known for his ability to transform his face and body in ways that are simply unimaginable today, putting himself through extreme discomfort, even to the point of hospitalization, for his craft. Still, of all the roles he ever played, the one that remains the most iconic is in Universal’s lush 1925 production of The Phantom of the Opera

Universal spared no expense in bringing Gaston Leroux’s novel to the screen. Studio head Carl Laemmle commissioned a full-scale set of the Paris Opera House, which remained in use until it was carefully deconstructed and placed in storage, as Stage 28, where it had stood for nearly ninety years, was demolished in 2014. The film is certainly in the tradition of the big Hollywood spectacles of the era, but elements of German Expressionism had found their way to further shores by this time. The looming and exaggerated shadows, darkness creating the illusion of cavernous spaces, and the stylized gloomy cellars of the Phantom’s dwelling all find their roots in that movement.

The Phantom of the Opera is filled with memorable set-pieces that remain impressive to this day. The early backstage scenes in which the Phantom appears only in silhouette, frightening the chorus dancers, and the Masked Ball (filmed in the early and expensive two-strip Technicolor process), that sees the Phantom appear among the revelers dressed as the Red Death of Poe’s famous story, remain eerie and ominous. The scene of the Phantom spying on lovers Raoul (Norman Kerry) and Christine (Mary Philbin), whom the Phantom deeply loves, from the angel statue on the roof is both epic and intimate, frightening and heartbreaking. The collapse of the gigantic chandelier onto the crowd below is an impressive effect and the chase through the cellars beneath the opera house into the streets of Paris remains a thrilling and memorable sequence.

But the unmasking scene stands above them all as the iconic emotional centerpiece of the film. In many ways, this sequence mirrors the Biblical story of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace. Erik, the Phantom, leaves the slumbering Christine a note that reads, “you are in no peril as long as you do not touch my mask. You will be free as long as your love for the spirit of Erik overcomes your fear.” As she reads, Christine is stirred by the music Erik is playing on the organ and goes to him. But as he plays, his back to her, Christine is overcome by curiosity for the forbidden fruit of what lies beneath the mask and gives into temptation, snatching it off his face. 

At this point, Chaney’s remarkable makeup, which had been kept secret from the public, is revealed in closeup. This must have been as startling to audiences at the time as it is to Christine in the film. Erik turns, filled with rage, and cries out “feast your eyes, glut your soul on my accursed ugliness!” Christine pleads that the Phantom let her go. He agrees, but this god proves to be vengeful and jealous as he demands that Christine never see Raoul again or he will kill them both. 

The scene still works beautifully. We feel Christine’s fear and Erik’s rage, which gives way to heartbreak at her betrayal and his personal shame. Chaney’s makeup and ability to emote through it make this one of the truly great moments in all of horror. Chaney simultaneously repels us and elicits our sympathy, just as Karloff would six years later in Frankenstein; a testament to the genius of the make-up designs and performances in both films.

‘The Phantom of the Opera’

There have been many wonderful (and a few not so great) tellings of The Phantom of the Opera tale, but this version still towers above them all. Though made several years before Carl Laemmle, Jr.’s successful run of horror films for the studio, I consider The Phantom the first true Universal Monster. As with the core films of that era, The Phantom is a misunderstood outcast with an unforgettable look and make-up, played by one of the great genre stars of the period.

Chaney’s Phantom fits effortlessly into the pantheon alongside Lugosi’s Dracula, Karloff’s Frankenstein monster, and Lon Chaney, Jr.’s Wolf Man. 

The film is a testament to the kind of mythic, symbolic, and archetypical storytelling that humans have been drawn to since they first began sharing stories around communal fires. It has echoed through the ages in everything from Sophocles to Star Wars. Several of these foundational elements in Phantom would become mainstays of Universal horror films for years, even decades to come. The Phantom sleeps in a coffin in the vast, dark cellars below the Paris Opera House, much like Dracula in the dungeons of his castle. His line “if I am the Phantom it is because man’s hatred has made me so” forebears Frankenstein’s monster—only truly a monster because of how the world mistreats him. And then there is that mob with pitchforks and torches seen again and again over the decades. There is even a touch of Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) as the Phantom, breathing through a wooden tube, hides underwater to capsize Raoul and Inspector Ledoux’s boat. Phantom may not have been the first American horror film, but it is the first to bring together so many elements that would define this period of American horror. 

But as great as these early films are, all this is merely preamble to the wonderful new world of Gods and Monsters before us. There is so much more to see and discuss; from the timeless classics to the hidden gems of Universal, Val Lewton, Roger Corman, William Castle and more. So, if you love monsters, giant bugs, ghosts, mad scientists, and old dark houses, this is the place for you. Now, I raise my glass to you and hope that you will join me in the toast.



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3636938/feast-eyes-phantom-rise-classic-horror-gods-monsters/

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