As promised, I’ve saved the very best for last!
The Phantom of the Opera, released 25 November 1925, is perhaps the best-known of Lon Chaney, Sr.’s films, and the reason he’s largely (but incorrectly) thought of as a horror actor in the modern era. This was the second film adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel of the same name. The first film adaptation was a 1916 German film which is now lost.
Unless you live under a rock, I’m assuming you’ve read the book, seen at least one film adaptation, and/or seen at least one stage adaptation. However, it’s always nice to recap the general storyline, particularly since the 1925 version differs from the 1930 reissue with some synchronized sound, as well as a 1929 silent reissue.
The Paris Opera House has just begun its new season, and young hopeful Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin) is singing in Faust. Her sweetheart, Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry), attends with his brother in the hopes of hearing Christine sing. Christine has quickly risen to become the understudy of Madame Carlotta, the opera’s star. During the performance, Raoul visits Christine in her dressing room and asks her when she’s going to marry him. Christine says not yet, since she’s compelled by a strange force to remain in the opera.
This is the opera’s most prosperous season, but the management inexplicably resigns midway through. They tell the new managers of the opera ghost, and provide a few details about this mysterious creature. The new managers have a good laugh, and don’t take the warnings seriously. Meanwhile, mysterious things start happening in the cellars, and Carlotta receives a note signed by “The Phantom,” demanding Christine replace Carlotta in the show. If this request isn’t met, bad things will happen.
Raoul meets Christine in the gardens and begs her to reconsider, and she admits what we just saw, that she’s being mentored by a strange voice who promises to advance her career. Raoul refuses to believe this is on the level, and Christine angrily stalks off.
Carlotta falls ill, and Christine indeed takes her place. During the show, the managers go into Box #5 and see a shadowy figure, just as they were told. The show is otherwise a success, and Raoul tries to convince Christine again when it’s over. She pretends not to know him because her unseen mentor is present, and Raoul leaves and lurks outside the door. Raoul hears this strange voice talking to her and even making romantic overtures, but when he enters the room again, Christine is gone.
The next evening, Carlotta defies the Phantom’s orders and appears in the show. This was a fatal mistake, as the great chandelier falls onto the audience. Christine escapes to her dressing room, and is transported to the Phantom’s lair through her mirror. Her mentor declares his love, says his name is Erik, and gives her instructions to never remove his mask. Of course, Christine can’t help herself, and unmasks him not long afterwards.
The unmasking is one of the all-time greatest moments of horror cinema, and Mary Philbin’s shock and horror aren’t all acting. Lon kept his Phantom makeup a secret all during filming, so she had no idea what she was about to see when she pulled off that mask.
Erik has pity on Christine, and lets her visit the other world one more time before returning to be his eternal prisoner, on condition she not see Raoul. Christine attends a masked ball, which Erik attends as Red Death, from the Edgar Allan Poe story “The Masque of the Red Death.” Christine defies orders by finding Raoul, and they go to the roof, where she tells him what’s happened. A mysterious man in a fez shows them to another exit, so Erik can’t find them. Unbeknownst to them, Erik was up there spying on them and already knows everything.
Erik’s voice returns to Christine in her dressing room the next evening, informing her he knows all about her secret plans. Raoul has a carriage waiting to take Christine away after the show, but Erik beats him to it and abducts her during a blackout.
Raoul goes to rescue Christine, with the help of the mysterious man in the fez, who finally reveals himself as Ledoux, an undercover cop who’s been investigating Erik for a long time. But it’s not going to be easy to find Christine, rescue her, and escape Erik’s underworld lair, as obstacles are encountered every step of the way.