The Phantom Of The Opera: The Ultimate Edition (DVD)
In The Phantom Of The Opera, a deformed creature stalks the dungeons of the Paris Opera House, living in service to an ideal of beauty matched only by his capacity to destroy. A romantic hero gone all wrong, he's the most human of monsters, responding to the glorious music above while understanding that he'll know it only from the muck below. Though the story has been adapted, remade, and ripped off countless times, the incarnation of The Phantom seared into the cultural memory is the one played by Lon Chaney–a frowning, shocked skull whose impulse to exact revenge on the world is held in check only by his love for beautiful ingénue Mary Philbin and the music she channels. First released in 1925, the Chaney Phantom lets the drama of Gaston Leroux's novel play out on exaggerated sets inspired by German Expressionism, but seemingly projected from the villain's twisted psyche. The atmosphere matches Chaney's performance perfectly. His grotesque appearance is achieved with wires, cotton balls, and eye-dilating chemicals, but his character, as usual, is animated from within. The film, on the other hand, doesn't always measure up to Chaney's work, as dizzying action competes with long, dull stretches of exposition dominated by far less charismatic actors. A troubled history helps explain the inconsistency. Behind-the-scenes scuffles between Chaney and credited director Rupert Julian marked Phantom's production, as did power plays involving Julian, the film's producers, and various uncredited directors. Several different cuts were released, and some have survived in better condition than others. Wisely, The Phantom Of The Opera: The Ultimate Edition opts not to edit all the versions into a master cut; instead, it simply presents 1925's longer, more neglected cut on one disc, and a shorter, better-preserved 1929 version (in color tints and, in some scenes, an experimental version of Technicolor) on the second. It takes guts to call any DVD release an "ultimate edition," but this carefully assembled package comes close. A lively, informative audio commentary by historian and disc producer Scott MacQueen sorts out the tangled history and backstage dramas. Chaney, the rumor goes, demanded to direct his own scenes. The result bears out the suggestion that Phantom belongs to Chaney more than anyone else, and not just because the famous unmasking scene and the rousing finale have an energy not seen elsewhere in the film. It belongs to Chaney for the same reason Frankenstein belongs to Boris Karloff and Dracula to Bela Lugosi: His monster's indiscriminate rages, consuming desire, and world-shattering emotions make the world around him seem tiny by comparison.