The last of nine home cinema titles released by the BFI as part of their ongoing Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film season, Rupert Julian's 1925 production of French novelist Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera has stood the test of time better than most, thanks in no small part to an iconic turn from Lon Chaney, the "man of a thousand faces". Revitalised by a 1996 Photoplay Productions restoration, complete with the original tints intended, Julian's Phantom drips with latent desire, Chaney's monster - like the vampire of Stoker, Murnau and Herzog - a potent if grotesque symbol of unrequited love.
Chaney, the chameleon-like star of a plethora of monster movies and literary adaptations, provides an inimitable physicality to his role as the Phantom as he lurks in the catacombs that snake beneath the prestigious Paris Opera House. Whispers of a wandering ghoul do little to sway the signing hands of the opera's new owners, but one sighting too many leads them to believe in this terrifying legend. But why does the Phantom only emerge to hear the fair voice of a young opera singer, Christine Daae (Mary Philbin)? And why does he seek to threaten those that would take her place on stage? Pursued by Christine's jealousy-fuelled former lover, Raoul (Norman Kerry), the Phantom rises from the depths to claim what's his.
An early Hollywood masterstroke from Universal, The Phantom of the Opera - along with the preceding The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), also written by Leroux starring Chaney - would spawn a whole host of classic Gothic literary adaptations including Tod Browning's Dracula and James Whale's Frankenstein (both released in 1931). What's perhaps most striking to modern audiences, however, is just how "European" Universal's horror output at the time - and Phantom in particular - feel. It's silent credentials obviously help with this illusion, but Julian and cinematographer Charles van Enger also demonstrate a remarkable eye for period detail, right down to the proscenium and Technicolor masquerade (pictured).
Disfigured, much like its chief antagonist, almost beyond recognition by a Technicolor and sound reworking at the end of 1929 following the gamechanging release of inaugural feature talkie The Jazz Singer, as well as a new silent version for international markets, Julian's 1925 original is the Phantom of the Opera that will hopefully go on to endure across the ages. Included in this new BFI dual format rerelease are both high definition and standard definition presentations, the only surviving reel from the 1929 sound reissue and Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces (2000), Kevin Brownlow's documentary on the incomparable silent star.