Lon Chaney’s Phantom in the original 1925 & 1929 re-release of “The Phantom of the Opera” displays one of the most frightening screen images ever created. His makeup was devised by himself, but it evoked quite closely the character imagined by author Gaston Leroux in his serialized novel, Le Fantôme de l’Opéra (1910). That story describes the Phantom as a character whose soul as well as his actual body are riddled with decay. You can almost smell him.
Subsequent versions of “The Phantom of the Opera” have taken slightly different turns, each exploring the possible not-so-evil-as-misunderstood personality of the Phantom, culminating of course with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s impressive musical “The Phantom of the Opera” (2004) based on his still running (two decades and counting) Broadway musical. By now, the Phantom is not as evil as he is petulant, and though his possessive love of Christine is still creepy, there is now an allure, a sensuality to the character and to his seduction of Christine that did not exist in the original silent version, and certainly not in the book.
The sweeping obsessive romance played out by Gerard Butler, Emmy Rossum, and Patrick Wilson is a bit different than Lon Chaney’s scaring the socks off us, where we truly hope the dashing Norman Kerry with his magnificent boyish grin and handsome looks will get Christine the heck out of that dungeon before the movie ends. In the 2004 musical, we are not so sure we want Patrick Wilson to rescue Emmy Rossum. When she leaves the Phantom’s lair, we are sorry for him and wonder what will become of him. Not so with Lon Chaney, who fascinated us, and repulsed us, but our sorrow for his plight and our empathy is held in check by the fact that he’s one seriously creepy fellow.
Perhaps a good deal of this transformation of the Phantom in our popular culture has simply to do with ugliness. Gerard Butler’s Phantom is a man with what looks like a few old burn scars on part of one side of his face. Nothing we can’t live with, even though he vainly keeps it covered. Lon Chaney’s face is a rotting, putrid skull. It gives us nightmares. The original book was written in the days when ugly was synonymous with evil, at least as far as storytelling was concerned. Chaney’s film was made, similarly, when the representation of evil was done mainly through an image of ugliness. We still have film monsters who are ugly to be sure, but they are evil and ugly, not evil because they are ugly. There was not a whole lot of sensitivity towards people with mental or physical handicaps in those days, when desperate parents were still leaving deformed children with carnivals. There wouldn’t be any empathy left over either for folks who were less than beautiful. In the code of old Hollywood, the heroes and heroines were beautiful, and the sidekicks and villains were not.
Today we have a bit different take on evil, on beauty, and on empathizing with those who appear different, and that perhaps is one of the reasons why the Phantom has changed. He needs to be repackaged in order to be sold. It would be difficult to film the same 1925 story and present it to a 21st century audience, with the same simplistic judgments. The Phantom’s evil as represented today is more psychological, and more a problem of society because he has been treated so shamefully. Instead of nightmares, he gives us second thoughts.