Phantom of the Opera

Andrew Johnston finds something even scarier than Andrew Lloyd Webber

Such is the enduring popularity of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1986 stage musical version of Gaston Leroux’s Le Fantôme de l’Opéra (and the subsequent 2004 Joel Schumacher film adaptation starring Gerard Butler) that many people forget there have been literally dozens of interpretations. Indeed, almost every generation of horror filmmakers has taken a stab at Leroux’s classic tale of unrequited love.

Claude Rains donned the Phantom’s cape and mask in 1943, for the first full-colour telling of the story. Britain’s Hammer Films offered its unique take in 1962, with Herbert Lom in the title role.

And in 1989, Robert (Freddy Krueger) Englund applied the disfigured make-up in a bloody, slasher-style incarnation for director Dwight H Little. Even Walt Disney and Woody Woodpecker have had a go.

But none have been more powerful or iconic than Lon Chaney’s gruesome portrayal from 1925 in Rupert Julian’s The Phantom of the Opera – the film that launched not only Chaney’s career as the world’s first horror star, but also Universal Studios’ monster movie cycle that kept genre buffs terrified throughout the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s.

Newtownabbey’s Theatre at the Mill presents the black-and-white gem as part of its September Film Festival, with a live score performed onstage by Ivan Martin (no, not that one).

The white-haired ivory-tinkler, wearing a dark shirt and trousers and playing a jet-black baby grand, blends eerily into the monochrome visuals on the big screen. His moody, low-key recital is the perfect accompaniment.

As for the flick itself, it is as fascinating for its genesis as for the finished work. New Zealand-born Julian allegedly co-directed with Chaney, Edward Sedgwick and Ernst Laemmle, but as with so much from the silent era the accurate details have been lost in the mists of time.

Certainly, though, the picture on show tonight is the most complete cut – 107 minutes, including the colourised, 17-minute Bal Masqué sequence.

There’s a lot of set-up and exposition, and the film moves more slowly than the studio’s Dracula, Frankenstein and Mummy romps (and at a snail’s pace compared to today’s horror fare).

The Phantom of the Opera is worth it for one scene alone – the famous unmasking. Apocryphally, Chaney’s make-up – sunken eyes, pinned-back nose, rotten teeth – was so surprisingly grotesque that Julian’s cameraman actually lost focus, while 1920s cinemas were stocked with smelling salts in case any patrons fainted.

There are no casualties tonight, but Chaney’s performance still has the capacity to thrill and horrify. And yet it is Lloyd Webber’s musical, with the erstwhile sitcom star Michael Crawford in the lead role, that continues to define Leroux’s character. So much so that even pianist Martin turns to the audience at the end and remarks, ‘Bit different to the other one, isn’t it?’

Still, as the crowd shuffle out into the wet and windy Newtownabbey night, no doubt one or two of them will pause to look over their shoulder. True horror seeps into the subconscious, and there are few horror legends creepier than Lon Chaney. They didn’t call him 'the Man of a Thousand Faces' for nothing – and this lovingly executed screening is a fine tribute to his talents.

Theatre at the Mill’s September Film Festival runs from September 18 – 24. Browse the programme here.