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The Unmasking Scene In ‘The Phantom of The Opera’ Is More Viscerally Horrifying Than Any of the ‘Halloween’ Films. I’m Not Wrong.

(I Am Bad At Coming Up With Titles Though)

  • 'The Phantom of the Opera' (1925), the silent big screen adaptation of the classic thriller, will be shown with live music on Wednesday, Oct. 31 at 7 p.m. at the Colonial Theatre, 95 Main St., Keene. Courtesy Photo—

  • 'The Phantom of the Opera' (1925), the silent big screen adaptation of the classic thriller, will be shown with live music on Wednesday, Oct. 31 at 7 p.m. at the Colonial Theatre, 95 Main St., Keene. Courtesy Photo—

  • 'The Phantom of the Opera' (1925), the silent big screen adaptation of the classic thriller, will be shown with live music on Wednesday, Oct. 31 at 7 p.m. at the Colonial Theatre, 95 Main St., Keene. Courtesy Photo—

  • Lon Chaney stars as Quasimodo in the classic silent film version of 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923), a silent thriller to be screened with live music on Sunday, Oct. 28 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Admission is free; a donation of $5 per person is requested to help defray expenses. Courtesy Photo—

  • Lon Chaney stars as Quasimodo in the classic silent film version of 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923), a silent thriller to be screened with live music on Sunday, Oct. 28 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Admission is free; a donation of $5 per person is requested to help defray expenses. Courtesy Photo—Courtesy Everett Collection

  • Lon Chaney stars as Quasimodo in the classic silent film version of 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923), a silent thriller to be screened with live music on Sunday, Oct. 28 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Admission is free; a donation of $5 per person is requested to help defray expenses. Courtesy Photo—

  • Lon Chaney stars as Quasimodo in the classic silent film version of 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923), a silent thriller to be screened with live music on Sunday, Oct. 28 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Admission is free; a donation of $5 per person is requested to help defray expenses. Courtesy Photo—



In the Reviewer’s Chair
Wednesday, October 24, 2018 3:35PM

To a modern day audience, going to the theater to see the latest horror film is a ticket to a couple hours of jump scares and a few dozen gallons of less than tastefully used artificial blood. At the end of the film you feel nothing but a mild adrenaline rush — which is fine by all means, enjoyable even — and perhaps a certain excitement, though nothing truly memorable. Of course, not every film needs to have a deeper purpose than to scare the wits out of you, but all the best horror films provide a certain je ne sais quoi, a little additive of something much more terrifying than shock alone.

The Universal Horror films of the 1930s and 1940s are perfect examples of this. In 1931, Bela Lugosi played the titular character in ‘Dracula’ with a seductive grace and poise that tempts us, just as it tempts his various victims. The same year, ‘Frankenstein’ showed us a monster given a heart and qualities we sympathize with without sacrificing any of the terrors of the genre. While these are fine examples, two of the earliest Universal Horror films — both of which are silent and star the impeccable Lon Chaney — push past the barely defined conventions of a genre that was in its infancy to deliver classical stories of fear and romanticism, of man being far worse than any monster lurking in the shadows.

‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’, released in 1923 and based off the Victor Hugo novel of the same name, tells a story of love between the crippled and embittered bell ringer Quasimodo and the gentle Esmeralda who saves his life to which he vows to protect her. Their love is ill fated, Quasimodo’s vile master Jehan vying after the girl himself, and with Esmeralda in love with the valiant Phoebus instead. The culmination of the story, to which the whole of Paris sees consequence, ends with one terrifying image of defeat.

The horror comes in waves in this film. For a start, Quasimodo is made to look grotesque, his back hunched, his face a marled mess, his body covered in thatched hair, though his demeanor is kindly beneath the harsher edges. He is but a man who has known nothing but cruelty his entire life and when shown the smallest amount of kindness he toes the line between devotion and obsession towards Esmeralda. His master Jehan is a wicked man, a monster beneath his skin that matches Quasimodo’s exterior, who instigates a path of lies and deception that fall over all the characters, most centrally Esmeralda. The climax of the film alone is reason to want to see it, as a crowd of Paris’ oppressed storm the Notre Dame cathedral and Quasimodo defends the place with fire and stone, unleashed in the unburdened fury he’d been holding back for so long. At the same time, Jehan unleashes his own reign of terror to truly brutal ends. It’s in no regard for a horror film to end happily, but this one ends hopelessly for so many, brutal in execution with a performance by Lon Chaney that helped define and inspire the infant genre and the actor’s own career down the line.

While ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ tells a story of man’s own wickedness, two years later in 1925 Universal released a tale of pure obsession in their adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s ‘The Phantom of The Opera.’ The story is best known nowadays through its musical adaptation of course, but to audiences of the 1920s who came to the theaters, expecting gothic romance at its finest, soon found themselves treated to one of the most glorious scenes in all of horror cinema with the unmasking of the Phantom.

The Phantom, who is also played by Lon Chaney, develops an attachment to the young soprano Christine Daae to which he acts first as her mentor, pushing her further into fame within the Opera Populare, and then her tormentor. Christine is compliant at first, liking the attention and the upward movement of her career, but the Phantom’s obsession with her takes on a sinister move once he reveals his face and declares his unreturned love for her. Lon Chaney was called “The Man of A Thousand Faces” for a reason, this one arguably one of his most terrifying and arguably one of the most terrifying moments in the early years of the horror genre. The violent Phantom with his wicked face kidnaps Christine and her lover Raoul and forces her to choose; kill Raoul or marry him. The ending I’ll leave unspoiled, but the tension this film builds is delightful.

A good horror movie should do that, no? A good horror movie, by all respects should be more than just shock factor, but the very feeling of prickling under the skin at the thought of what comes next. A good horror movie should build tension in all the right ways until we cannot possibly take it any longer. ‘The Phantom of The Opera’ does this throughout, giving us an immense feeling of unease as every moment goes on. ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’, which is less directly a horror movie and more so a drama with horror influences, even does this at it’s climax leaving the fate of it’s main characters undetermined until the last possible moment. As a more recent example, there’s a scene in ‘The Silence of The Lambs” where we’re left unsure of whether or not Hannibal Lecter is in an elevator that’s slowly descending, and every moment of that wait to know for sure is bone-chilling.

In short, good horror is hard to come by nowadays. There are rare gems, ‘Get Out’ and ‘A Quiet Place’ of late but overall it’s disheartening to see such a wonderful genre deluded into cheap scares and wretched sequels. There’s no heart, no moral, no real beat of the heart except what remains momentarily. A good horror movie will make you remember why you were afraid for days after seeing it because it’s truly gotten under your skin. You’re welcome to enjoy whatever you so want or course, but if you’re wanting for a good horror film, ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ and ‘The Phantom of The Opera’ are two excellent and early places to start with performances by one of the most iconic actors within the genre.

’The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ (1923) will be screened with live music on Sunday at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre. Admission is free; a donation of $5 per person is requested to help defray expenses. For more info, call (603) 654-3456 or visit www.wiltontownhalltheatre.com.

‘The Phantom of the Opera’ (1925) will be shown on Halloween – Wednesday, Oct. 31 – at 7 p.m. at the Colonial Theatre in Keene. General admission $6.50 per person. For tickets and information, visit www.thecolonial.org or call (603) 352-2033.

Cheyenne Heinselman is an actress and a playwright, a member of the International Thespian Society Troupe #7883, as well as an avid and opinionated supporter of the arts.