Video Review: The Phantom of the Opera on DVD

Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry, Smitz Edwards. Directed by Rupert Julian. Aspect ratio: 4:3. Dolby Digital. 92 minutes. 1925. Image Entertainment ID4097DSDVD. Not rated. $29.95.

Of all the actors who have starred as The Phantom of the Opera in stage, screen, and television productions, Lon Chaney is the one who's most familiar for what he looks like unmasked. (Can you remember anything about Claude Rains, Herbert Lom, or even Robert Englund in full Phantom makeup?) Seven decades before it graced a US postage stamp, the hideous image of Chaney's cadaverous cellar-dweller was firmly implanted in our collective consciousness as the face that launched a thousand shrieks. Even now, it remains a face that only a mother---or a movie buff---could love.

But Chaney's performance isn't merely skin-deep. As the malevolent Erik, a ghostly figure who makes life miserable for employees and audiences at the Paris Opera, Chaney's flamboyantly expressive pantomime is larger and scarier than life. In other dramatizations of Gaston Leroux's novel, writers have struggled to "humanize" the Phantom by offering a rationale for his wickedness: someone tossed acid in his face, or stole his musical compositions, or simply failed to nurture the poor creature's inner child. But Chaney's Phantom makes no excuses: Erik is evil, impure and simple. His romantic obsession with Christine (Mary Philbin), a beautiful prima donna, doesn't redeem him. In fact, it brings out the worst in him, leading Erik to drown an unwelcome visitor, terrorize Christine's boyfriend (Norman Kerry), and, of course, drop a chandelier on innocent bystanders.

Given the extraordinary impact of Chaney's iconic Phantom, it's a pity that the 1925 Phantom itself is so very ordinary. The pace is surprisingly sluggish, even during the chandelier drop, and except for a few good scares---most notably, the famous unmasking scene---the movie is better remembered than actually viewed. Chaney gives this creaky melodrama much more than it ever gives him.

For DVD, Image Entertainment has released the version of Phantom prepared for a 1929 reissue. Some scenes have been tinted to the original 1925 specifications, and a spectacular masked-ball sequence has been restored to its two-color Technicolor glory. I had some slight problems with image tiling at various points. On the other hand, this could well be the best Phantom available in a video version taken from "prime quality 35mm material," as Image boasts. Even though it has a distracting number of blemishes and blotches, it far exceeds anything you'll find on VHS copies of public-domain prints. The new orchestral score by Gabriel Thibaudoux, recorded in digital stereo by I Musici de Montréal, is another major selling point.