A Meditation on the Horror Film Hero – The Phantom of the Opera

Watching these old movies for inspiration has had its benefits. The Phantom of the Opera is wonderfully and moodily shot. The design is eerie, and the film encouraged me to read the book to get a feel for gothic literature. The original silent film proves to be a very faithful and well done adaptation. In fact, re-watching both the musical stage-production and musical-film led me to believe “The Phantom of the Opera” may be the most successfully adapted book ever, getting two movies and a play that actually hit all the themes, moods and emotions with only minimal cuts from the novel.

When the movie opened, however, I was certain of meeting yet another hero who was a total douche. Later, the tides turned, and what initially felt cloying became one of the best parts of the film, and may be entirely creditable to the talents of the actor playing the hero, Norman Kerry.

It is this subject which I would like to discuss. What is it about these guys that any audience would find attractive? Maybe today we find the answer!

The Phantom of the Opera movie poster
The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny is our hero this time around, and the film fumbles the ball almost immediately by asking us to accept that a forty-year-old actor is playing a twenty-year-old man. It’s not going to happen movie.

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There’s something suspicious about this young man…

The Phantom of the Opera is a well known story, and fans of the musical will already know the plot, which is about a young singer named Christine. Christine is the object of The Opera Ghost’s affections, and this Phantom wants her to be in all the leading roles, so he threatens and blackmails the owners of the opera to put her in the lead. She is a completely competent singer, although a bit naive and waifish, and doesn’t realize the Opera Ghost is willing to kill people to make her a star. She is also in love with Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny, a very young (only forty or so) aristocrat who she knew as a child (which means that they were playing together as children when she was a babe of 6 or 7 and he a wee child of 29.) This rouses the Phantom’s jealousy and he kidnaps her. It’s a pretty good story if you don’t know it, but it’s actually pretty plot heavy, and I’d rather focus on the hero, Raoul. I can highly recommend both this silent film and the musical film by Joel Schumacher for viewing.

We first meet Raoul when he bursts into Christine’s dressing room, and since this is a silent film, we can assume that he doesn’t knock from the way that the maid eyes him suspiciously. He also eyes the maid suspiciously, until she yields to the staring match and exits. Raoul then restrains Christine is his manly embrace, which is a recurring theme, and doesn’t really help build his appeal as a character. Hold that woman, dammit. Hold her whether she wants to be held or not. Hold her!

Restrain her!

Looooooove her!

Things are looking dismal for his likability when he returns later to restrain her in the park. She tells him she can no longer love him as it is her duty to devote her life to art. She then proceeds to tell him an alarmingly creepy story about how spirits are visiting her and teaching her how to sing. Instead of finding this suspicious like he does in the book, our film hero just laughs at her, telling her she’s a silly woman. His hero-points are quickly decreasing at this point, and you might be giving up hope, as well, especially when you, like me, meet his older brother who also looks younger than him. “We were boys together… or at least, I was.”

Raoul vows to win Christine back from the Phantom and “art”, as if a woman is something you can win like a trophy at a sporting event. He then proceeds to do so, proving to us once again that sometimes things that are sexist are also actually things that happen.

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If large gesturing was a sport, and the prize was Christine, would Raoul or the Phantom win?

After the Phantom threatens that some terrible disaster will happen if Christine does not take the lead in the next show, the worst comes to fruition. Christine is not placed in the lead and the Phantom cuts the enormous chandelier from the ceiling in the middle of the opera, dropping it on the terrified theater goers. It is at this point that our feelings towards Raoul start to change, because it is here that Raoul meets Ledoux, the Persian! The scene where these two men exchange glances is worth the price of admission. It verges on the ridiculous, with their eyebrows and their over-acting, but awesomely also conveys all the emotions and plot that they intended to convey. Can it be considered over-acting if the point comes across so believably and enjoyably? So, now I want to know more about this mysterious man that Raoul happened to run into during the commotion of the fleeing opera goers!

The Persian is named Ledoux in the silent film, and is an amalgam of the detective Ledoux from the book who comes to find where the kidnapped Christine has gone, and the Persian, who actually finds her. For those of you who only know the musical and not the book, the “The Persian” is the only character who knows the truth about the Phantom and is plotting secret things, as he tracks him down.

The Phantom then kidnaps Christine, and I would like to note one thing here. The mask the Phantom wears, while not the half-mask we have all come to know and love, is actually quite interesting. The mask is just a blank upper face with a veil of beads dangling all the way around under the cheeks.

The original mask of The Phantom of the Opera.
The original mask of The Phantom of the Opera.

At first I was not impressed, but as the movie goes on and Lon Chaney acts from underneath the mask, its blank features and veil really start to become unsettling. You begin to realize that he is hiding something very sinister, and just about the time she rips the thing off his face is the time you feel about ready to do it yourself.

Phantom-reveal
The Phantom of the Opera is there, inside your mind.

Christine is released from a month of captivity just in time for a masked ball. There, she and Raoul sneak onto the roof to plot escaping together to England the following night — after the opera is over. In this scene Raoul has changed, and instead of suppressing the poor girl, he treats her very cordially, and after their vows, he doesn’t even force a kiss, like most Hollywood guys of his generation, but instead hugs her gently. Ah, Raoul, the tides of douche-iness are turning! She does, however, have to guide his hand away from her pert and fully formed bustle.

The Phantom is secretly listening to this conversation, and he is not about to let them escape tomorrow night! Yes, you heard them right, tomorrow night. Not tonight, when they have a clear get away. No, let the phantom have a full day of evil planning. That’s a great idea. Tomorrow night!

"Let us escape from the imminent threat of the Phantom tomorrow evening, instead of right now. That's something he'll never expect!"
“Let us escape from the imminent threat of the Phantom tomorrow evening, instead of right now. That’s something he’ll never expect!”

As the two lovers rush down the stairs they run into Ledoux, the Persian! Who is this startling man? And why does he, with melodramatic eyebrows, guide our heroes down a different path? As Raoul and the Persian use body language seldom occurring in nature, the heroes back into a different room, and thus, apparently, to safety!

So, at the performance the next night, Christine is kidnapped. I mean, no surprise there.

I would like to take a moment to pause and tell you that I grew up listening to the musical. I know Andrew Lloyd Webber’s version very well, and having never encountered the book, I was surprised by everything that follows in the silent film. The story essentially turns into an action movie, and to see if this was true, upon finishing the movie I went and read the book. And, yes, the silent film is a pretty darn accurate translation of what happens there, and is sorely missed in the musical… though adding the Persian into the musical would throw the audience for a loop. 15 minutes before the play is over a new character appears! What’s going on? So, I can understand why they changed it.

Raoul runs to Christine’s dressing room and stumbles upon Ledoux, the Persian! The two men combine their mighty acting and the movie reveals that not only does it have a star turn in actor Lon Chaney as the monster, but it also gains footing as a buddy-cop film. Both Raoul and Ledoux make such awesome faces and gestures at one another that you can just sit back and enjoy the ride from here on out.

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“My expressive eye movements shall balance nicely with your large gestures! Together we will take on the Phantom at his own game and beat him!”

Ledoux explains that they need to keep their hands at the level of their eye. This is because the Phantom has installed snares and traps all over, and was, himself, at one point a professional assassin who murdered people by throwing a razor noose around their necks. If your hand is in front of your face, you can pull the noose away and prevent strangulation. Strangely, this explanation is absent from both the silent film and the musical, even though the hand-at-the-level-of-your-eyes bit is present. I would like to note that in the musical, Raoul does not keep his hand at the level of his eye, and is therefore caught in the Phantom’s noose, and is the only iteration of the story where this happens to the poor fool.

Hand at the level of your eye, people. Seriously.

"I shall make gestures large enough to overcome any who challenge me!"
“I shall make gestures large enough to overcome any who challenge me!”

The two men encounter a floating head, which turns out to be a man with a lantern, and their reactions are priceless.

As Christine is given the choice of blowing up the opera house or marrying the Phantom, the two men stumble unwittingly into a trap! It is a room full of mirrors which is made of metal and is essentially a giant oven that the Phantom turns up the heat in, causing our heroes to strip down to their underpants. Will they ever be able to rescue Christine?

Christine can hear them, and tries to help by stealing the Phantom’s keys, but she’s about as subtle as a jackhammer, and the scene would be considered top notch comedy if it wasn’t in a horror film.

Now Christine is forced to watch her true love burn to death, as well as decide the fate of everyone at the opera house, and moderate the Phantom’s mood swings. She does this by crumpling into a pile and making large gestures.

"My large gestures will surely bide enough time to save Raoul!"
“My large gestures will surely bide enough time to save Raoul!”

Suddenly, Ledoux and Raoul find a trapdoor in the floor, and they escape into it, only to realize they are now in a room filled with barrels of gunpowder.

Both men are struggling in vain to save this poor woman, and are met at every turn by horrors. Christine decides, slowly, very slowly, not blow up the opera house (good choice, though it was pretty touch-and-go there for a moment) and to marry the Phantom, thus saving Raoul and everyone.

But the turn of the scorpion (just watch the film) causes the gunpowder room to flood, which starts to drown our heroes. Oh, the excitement! The Phantom keeps his promise and saves Ledoux and Raoul by opening a trapdoor.

Thus, Christine has used her wits to save her lover, while her lover was using everything in his power to save her! It’s actually pretty well done.

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“Stay back, Persian. You’ve done your bit for the team, but the prize is mine!”

Excitingly, the entire population of Paris has found all the bodies of the people the Phantom killed that night and is raiding the catacombs to capture the villain. And I mean like everyone in Paris. There’s like a thousand extras in this scene.

The Phantom tries to kidnap Christine and escapes to the streets, but she jumps out of a speeding carriage. The mad crowd of thousands nearly tramples Christine to death, but Raoul saves her. Then, the enormous crowd captures the Phantom and kills him. Which, is not part of the book or musical, but may be the coolest most dramatic ending an adaptation of the story has featured.

So, in conclusion, here we have a leading man who starts out a bit of dick, but after realizing his girlfriend has feelings, begins to respect her, and finally risks his life to save her with the help of his badass friend. That’s a character arch! From douche to dapper! And not only does this work, thematically, it may also explain what the other two movies I reviewed, The Mummy and White Zombie, were trying so hard to do, but failing so miserably at, with their heroes. They were trying to introduce guys with rough edges who found themselves overwhelmed when trying to rescue their gals. The Phantom gets it right.

So, Bravo, Phantom of the Opera for getting it right! You rock! Or whatever the classical music equivalent rocking is! You totally do that!

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“Think of me. Think of me, fondly.”

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