Classic Scene: Unmasking the Phantom
Unmasking the Phantom
Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Dir. Rupert Julian (uncredited Lon Chaney)
The Scene: Rising opera star Christine (Mary Philbin) finds herself in the lair of the fabled Phantom (Lon Chaney) who has been haunting the opera house. The young singer stumbles around exploring his ornately gothic layer as the masked stranger coolly obverses her. An overwhelmed Christine collapses, when she comes to she finds her captor playing his organ. As he takes long exaggerated strokes while playing, Christine cautiously approaches the mysterious Phantom from behind as he explains the latest piece he is working on. Naturally her curiosity gets to her and slowly her hands reach up, but her obsessive kidnapper adjusts to stop that attempt. But once she is within arm’s reach and tears the Phantom’s mask off with a mischievous look in her eyes, revealing the true terrifying face of the Phantom of the Opera. Her expression of gleeful curiosity turns to terror as she cowers before the horrific man who has her firmly in his grasp. While he tries to intimidate her, eventually we see the Phantom breakdown emotionally as the poor emotionally broken man he truly is. He agrees to let Christine go back to her world on the condition that she return to him.
The Deconstruction: There have been countless adaptations of Gaston Leroux’s classic novel and each have their own variation on the Phantom’s unmasking, but for my money none have done it better than this masterpiece of the silent age. Even now nine decades later, this terrifying scene still holds the power to make audiences gasp. Though contemporary audiences will never know the power this moment originally had. In the lead up to Phantom of the Opera, fans braced themselves for yet another terrifying creation from the legendary make-up artist/actor Lon Chaney. He did not fail to deliver as the Phantom is perhaps the most terrifying and iconic character he ever crafted. Using frequent collaborator and cameraman Charles Van Enger as his test subject, the actor perfected his horrific look ensuring the audiences would never forget the moment his mask is removed. Sure enough theaters across the country had to stock smelling salt in order to bring back those who passed out due to shock. The build to this moment is slow and methodical as Christine, gets gradually closer and closer before finally doing the deed. Given the exaggerated performances required of silent film actors, the build up to the dreaded unmasking is that much more powerful.
Best Bit: Lon Chaney’s make-up for the Phantom is arguably the finest work of his career. Using his star power and pull with Universal to keep the look of the Phantom a secret. This proved handy to the marketing department who built an entire promotional campaign around the mystery of Chaney’s latest horrific monster.