Monday, October 15, 2012

Making Monsters #14: The Phantom of the Opera

This month wouldn't be complete without mentioning Lon Chaney. The man of a thousand faces, the patriarch of every monster makeup artist and horror movie star I idolized as a kid, Chaney developed his gifts as a versatile character actor and makeup artist on the stage before breaking into the movies in 1912 as a contract player for Universal. So in addition to his enormous influence on the entire history of what was then a brand new medium, Chaney also represents the connection between film and theatre; this link is especially clear with monster movies, which have much the same attraction as the theatrical genres - magicians, Vaudeville, Grand Guignol - that were in vogue when Chaney was a stage actor. Chaney created characters like his Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (his breakthrough performance) using theatrical techniques and materials - grease paint, a wig, basic facial appliances - brought to life by his gift for pantomime, which he developed as the child of two deaf parents. Disappearing into nearly every role, including his multiple collaborations with director Tod Browning, Chaney was both a master craftsman and a versatile character actor. With Chaney, the special effect and the performance were one and the same.

Chaney's most famous role, of course, is Erik in 1925's The Phantom of the Opera. To bring to life the disfigured character that Gaston Leroux's book describes as having the face of a corpse, Chaney covered his eye sockets with black paint, wore crooked false teeth and, most famously, used wire to turn the tip of his nose permanently up, giving it a pig-like appearance. The famous moment when Christine (Mary Philbin) removes the Phantom's mask, revealing his horrible visage frozen in shock, supposedly caused audiences in 1925 to scream and pass out; it was The Exorcist of its time. The scene is still startling; although it's easy now to scoff at Chaney's performance with the ironic distance that time affords, the fact is that Chaney's performance remains - after Robert Englund's Freddy-like Phantom and Gerard Butler's crooning, barely scarred Phantom - the most memorable and enduring incarnation of the character to date.

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