The Paris Opera House is being handed over to its new managers, and just as the ink on the contract is drying, the old owners warn them to beware of the mysterious Phantom (Lon Chaney), a shadowy individual who is said to haunt the corridors of the old, vast building. The new managers laugh this off, but ask one of the cleaning women about the Phantom, only to be told that he sits in Box Five to enjoy the performances in private, and must never be disturbed. The two men creep into the box in question, and there indeed is a cloaked figure watching the ballet; they run out, then, plucking up courage, return to find the figure has disappeared - but he's not far away, no, he's never far away...
This lavish production was the classic version of Gaston Leroux's celebrated horror novel, adapted by Elliot J. Clawson, Frank M. McCormack and Raymond Schrock, and the version that set the high standards for the tale, despite the troubles which saw original director Rupert Julian leave. The set design is magnificent, dwarfing the cast and extras, and lending a sense of grandeur to the story of unrequited love and pitiful, dangerous madness. Such is the impact of Chaney's archetypal interpretation of Erik, the Phantom, that the film suffers when he is not onscreen, which is quite a lot during the first half, where we will catch a glimpse of a shadow creeping up a wall, or a disembodied hand emerging from behind the scenes.
Mlle Carlotta is the star of the opera, and Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin) is her understudy, but Erik has no time for Carlotta, who we see is a plump, silly singer, looking incredibly pleased with herself. This is just one of the lighthearted touches, which include slapstick, added in the initial sequences that don't sit too comfortably with the melodramatic shocks of the following ones. Our heroine, Christine, however, is a delicate beauty (count the number of times Philbin swoons), and Erik is a big fan. So big that he has dedicated an opera he has written to her, and wants to make her into a bigger star under his tutelage. One problem is that he lives below the Opera House, in the abandoned torture chambers, while she is happily spending time with her military man boyfriend, Raoul (Norman Kerry).
After sending the huge chandelier crashing down on the audience who have the temerity to prefer going to see Carlotta rather than hear Christine, Erik steps up his efforts. If he were around today he'd be called a stalker; look at the evidence: spying on his idol, engaging in a letter writing campaign (probably in green ink), creating work for her to sing, sabotaging anyone who gets in her way to the top, and eventually kidnapping her and spiriting her away to his subterranean lair. It is here that we see the Phantom ummasked, as previously he has been wearing a creepily emotionless mask, but after getting the assurance of the terrified Christine that she will stay with him, she whips off the mask as he plays the organ, revealing the torture-ruined face beneath.
It's a fantastic moment of horror cinema, and all the memorable items of this film involve Chaney. His Erik starts off as a pathetic, lonely soul, but by the time Christine and the wishy-washy Raoul have made plans to escape Paris, he obviously thinks, to hell with it, and aims straight for the extremes of evil that he has been driven to. In one colour sequence, Erik arrives dressed as the Red Death to admonish the revellers at the annual ball, leading to a superb image of him standing on the shoulders of a statue on the roof of the Opera House, scarlet cape billowing around him. For the final half hour, it's all go with Raoul and a secret police inspector tracking the Phantom and the re-kidnapped Christine down, complete with murder and torture and escalating to a grand chase around Paris. If you don't mind the staginess of the early scenes, this Phantom of the Opera is a thrilling adventure, and its central, electrifying performance is one to relish.