Now, if you've ever looked into classic horror in any aspect, chances are you've seen him before as he's included in basically any collage on the subject. This exposure may lessen the impact of the moment, halfway through the film or so, when the Phantom is suddenly unmasked. So imagine, please, being a young person back in 1925. You've just spent your hard-earned nickel (or however-much) on the rare opportunity to sit in a darkened theater and watch a "motion picture" on the big screen. Remember that you don't have a TV at home or any access to moving images other than what you occasionally get to see at the theater. You are not inundated with fantastic images dancing in and out of your home for several hours a day. You're just a kid in a theater, chewing on some peanuts (or whatever), and you're watching the story of the young opera singer and the haunted opera house and you're enjoying the new-fangled tinting technology on this film and then the young opera singer is in the Phantom's lair and she reaches up to remove that creepy mask and suddenly you see -
and OH MY GOODNESS HIS FACE IS FILLING THE SCREEN AND HE'S WALKING TOWARD YOU AND THERE ARE NO REAL SPECIAL EFFECTS SO YOU KNOW THAT THAT'S A FACE, THAT'S A REAL MAN'S REAL FACE AND HOW IS THIS HAPPENING AHHHHHHHH!!!
And I think you can imagine why this movie was pretty much one of the scariest things that had ever happened to anyone.
It's not totally un-scary today, either. You never quite get used to Lon Chaney's face in this one. His makeup job (which he did himself, by the way - that's pre-union vaudeville-trained acting for you) is as usual for him nothing short of awesome. We're talking wire-hooks-in-your-nose, excrutiating-pain-during-filming awesome, here. When you consider that this is the same face we just saw in THE UNKNOWN, it's pretty amazing. It is also, according to my sources, the closest film approximation to the novel's Phantom, who was never really intended to have a pretty side. The story is put together nicely, as well - the same basic storyline as most other versions of Phantom, though each version has a slightly different ending. This one has Raoul and the Mysterious Stranger saving Christine, while some hordes of angry villagers destroy the Phantom and throw him in the Seine.
Ah, angry villagers. Is there any menace you cannot conquer with the aid of a couple of torches and some serious mob mentality?
This film has a decidedly gothic feel as opposed to the sweeping grandeur of certain stage musicals. It's the sort of scary story people sit in parlours (spelled with a 'u', of course) and read on long, rainy autumn nights. There's also some great, moody cinematography and color-tinting on display, as well as a very early use of technicolor(!) for the opera and especially the Bal Masque sections. Being intermittent, the color really, really pops. It's beautiful stuff.
Norman Kerry also appears in this film, playing Young Lover vs Chaney's Demented Freak as he does again in THE UNKNOWN (and before that in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME). He is once again quite dashing, looking excellent in a suit and appearing as though he is, in fact, an excellent lover. In fact, I bet he looks like just the sort of person to come back in around 70 years to teach us once again about how frenchmen do love...
I'm just saying.
Anyway, obviously I've got to recommend this film. Especially if you are, like me, any kind of a silent film nerd. It is beautiful, and moody, and one of the most influential horror films ever. You can hardly talk about classic film horror without mentioning it. So I say, give it a watch.
And I guess if you wanted to be a great big musical theatre nerd and periodically break into song throughout, you could do that too. It is a silent film, after all.