SHOCK SCENES: PHANTOM OF THE OPERA UNMASKED
By Michael Arruda
Welcome to SHOCK SCENES, the column where we look at some of the more memorable scenes in horror movie history.
That’s right. We’ll be scouring horror movies throughout the decades looking at some of the brightest- er, darkest moments they’ve had to offer. It should be a fun trip.
First up, a look at the unmasking scenes in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA movies. Now, there have been a bunch of film versions of the famous Gaston Leroux tale— see my blog column THE HORROR JAR: THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA MOVIES posted on September 12, 2014 for the complete list— but for today’s column, I’d like to concentrate on the first three film versions: the 1925 Lon Chaney silent classic, the 1943 Universal remake starring Claude Rains, and the 1962 Hammer remake starring Herbert Lom. These are the three best versions, as none of the remakes since have been as good.
Most surprisingly, however, is that the definitive and most impressive version of this horror tale remains the original 1925 silent Lon Chaney version. I still find this difficult to believe. The film was made in 1925. It’s a silent movie. And yet this is the best version. No one since has been able to match it. Unbelievable, but true.
Similarly, when you look at the famous unmasking scenes, again, it’s the Chaney version which stands above the rest, and seriously, it stands way above the rest. No other version even comes close!
The Chaney version also is the most faithful version of the Gaston Leroux novel, and likewise, it handles its unmasking scene in a way that is most true to the book. For starters, in the book, the Phantom is unmasked early on, as he is in the Chaney version. For some reason, both the 1943 Universal remake and the 1962 Hammer remake chose to unmask the Phantom at the end of the movie. Bad idea.
In the 1925 silent version, the first half of the movie, the Phantom (Lon Chaney) is exactly that: a phantom. We see only glimpses of him, a shadow, a hand, a silhouette, and he’s there wreaking havoc at the Paris Opera House for reasons we don’t know at the time. The movie captures this brilliantly, and director Rupert Julian truly makes the unknown Phantom a threatening and menacing presence without the audience ever really seeing him.
When the Phantom shows interest in young Opera singer Christine Daae (Mary Philbin) and secretly whisks her away from her dressing room, we see him for the first time, and he’s wearing a mask so neither Christine nor the audience can see his face. In the famous unmasking scene, which occurs midway through the film, the Phantom plays the organ, while Christine sneaks up behind him and attempts to remove his mask. In classic suspenseful fashion, she reaches for it but then backs off, afraid he’ll turn around, before finally ripping it off his face, exposing the horrific make-up by Lon Chaney.
This is one of the best scenes in the 1925 THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. In fact, it’s one of the most memorable scenes in horror movie history. The same cannot be said for the unmasking scenes in the 1943 and 1962 versions.
Chaney’s Phantom opens his mouth in what looks like a shriek of terror, and then he turns on Christine with a viciousness that would make Mr. Hyde proud. He physically attacks her, thrusting his face into hers, screaming at her to behold is ugliness, and then he laughs at her, in what we can only imagine to be an insane maniacal laugh. It’s a terrifying and brutal scene.
Supposedly, Chaney shot most of this scene himself— he and director Julian were at odds throughout the production and Chaney directed most of his own scenes— and to get the desired reaction shots from Mary Philbin, Chaney hurled insults at her, and she was under the impression he was furious with her and disappointed with her acting abilities, and so her reaction here was based on real emotions.
Interestingly enough, more than one version of this scene exists— heck, various versions of this movie exist! The history of this film reveals there were multiple cuts of the film upon its release, and over the years as it was re-released multiple times things didn’t get any simpler and different prints surfaced. I’ve only seen one version, but supposedly there exists out there another version of the unmasking scene shot from different angles.
After this shocking scene, the Phantom lets Christina go, to return to the Paris Opera House, but later, when he spies her with her lover Raoul (Norman Kerry) he vows revenge and then brings his wrath down upon the Opera House one last time while abducting Christina once more in the film’s extremely exciting conclusion.
In the 1943 version, Claude Rains portrays a very different and much more sympathetic Phantom. His Phantom is a violinist who is ultimately wronged and then goes insane later in the movie, and so when this film starts, there is no Phantom haunting the Opera House since he’s a meek violinist at this point in the story.
The mask in this version is probably my favorite mask in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA movies, and it’s so prevalent in this movie that it becomes synonymous with the Phantom, much more than Chaney’s mask. When you think of Lon Chaney as the Phantom, you see his terrifying make-up, but when you think of Claude Rains as the Phantom, you see his slick white mask.
The entire time Rains is the Phantom, he wears the white mask. Unlike the 1925 version, the unmasking scene in the 1943 film doesn’t come until the end of the movie. This scene just doesn’t have the same effect as the Chaney scene. The mask comes off, and we see minimal make-up on Rains’ face, and then he promptly dies in the film’s conclusion. Gone is the maniacal laughter, the threats to Christine, the essence of what made the character the evil Phantom. I like the 1943 version a lot, but its unmasking scene and its abrupt anti-climactic finale are two of the weakest parts of this movie.
For some reason, Hammer Films chose to follow the style of the 1943 version instead of the 1925 version. I’m guessing this decision was a financial one. The 1925 version was an epic production, complete with a massive set of the Paris Opera House, and its enormous catacombs, which were used in a huge part of the movie, unlike the subsequent remakes which spent little time underneath the Paris Opera House. Hammer probably didn’t have the budget to make a movie on the scale of the 1925 version.
Hammer’s 1962 version gets off to a rousing start, however, as the Phantom (Herbert Lom) is wreaking havoc immediately, and so in this regard Hammer did choose to follow the 1925 version. And I’ve argued that the first half of the 1962 PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is among Hammer’s and director Terence Fisher’s best work, but then things take a dramatic turn as we see via flashback the story of how the Phantom became the Phantom, and suddenly Herbert Lom’s Phantom becomes even more sympathetic— albeit, even heroic— a heroic Phantom? Come on!— than Claude Rains’ Phantom.
And the unmasking scene in the 1962 version might be even weaker than the one in the 1943 version. Again, it occurs at the end of the movie. Again, there’s no insane rants by the Phantom, there’s nothing terrifying or frightening, as there was in the 1925 film. Again, the make-up is inferior to the Chaney make-up. There’s a little excitement involving a falling chandelier, but it’s so quick and abrupt that if you blink suddenly you’re reading “The End” on the screen.
The 1962 version by Hammer Films cries out for an additional 20 minutes where after the Phantom is unmasked, he whisks Christine into the catacombs beneath the Opera House while the heroes pursue them into the Phantom’s lair, where they must face all the traps set for them by the insane Phantom. But alas this doesn’t exist. The Hammer version simply ends with the unmasking. The good news is this part of the story does exist in the 1925 silent version, and it’s one of the more exciting parts of that film.
The unmasking scene in the Lon Chaney 1925 version of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is one of the most terrifying scenes in horror film history. It’s not to be missed. The unmasking scenes in the 1943 Universal Claude Rains version and the 1962 Hammer Films Herbert Lom version are both duds and strangely remain the weakest parts of both movies. Go figure!
So, there you have it: a look at the unmasking scenes in the three most prominent PHANTOM OF THE OPERA movies to date.
I hope you enjoyed this new column, SHOCK SCENES, and that you’ll join me again next time when I look at more classic scenes from classic horror movies.
Thanks for reading!
Books by Michael Arruda:
TIME FRAME, science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.
FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.