(On TV, July 2018) Even for sympathetic cinephiles like myself, watching silent movies can often feel like an imposed chore. Some of the 1920s dramas can be a test of anyone’s patience with lengthy running time made even worse by title cards, with overdone acting, primitive cinematographic grammar, hackneyed stories and outdated social mores. But there are exceptions—comedy movies à la Buster Keaton work on a purely physical level, and genre stories still work on pure plot and ideas. So it is that The Phantom of the Opera may have most of the problems of 1920s silent cinema, but it still works because it tells a familiar story with enough grace and style that it’s hard to resist. You probably know the plot if only because Gaston Leroux’s novel has been remade once in 1986 as a massively successful musical (can you hum the title tune? I’m doing so right now), which was then turned into a 2004 movie. But the original still has a kick of its own—relatively fast paced at less than two hours, it also features Lon Chaney as The Phantom (watch out for when he takes off the mask!) and a period atmosphere that still feels quite enjoyable. The big romance at the heart of the plot is timeless, and it’s actually fun to see the phantom wreak havoc in the Paris Opera House. There aren’t that many silent movies that still carry this much pure non-comic entertainment power. On a historical level, this very first version of The Phantom of the Opera is also notable in that it was enough of a financial hit that it motivated Universal Studios to launch a number of horror projects that eventually led to the classic “Universal Monsters” franchise—The Phantom of the Opera is sometimes mentioned as part of the franchise, although they’re usually talking about the 1943 version in doing so rather than the now-public domain 1925 one. (And if you want to get a glimpse at the complex horrors of silent-film preservation, have a look at the later half of the film’s Wikipedia page. Geez.).
(On TV, July 2018) The 1941 original version of The Wolf Man is rightly considered one of the big-five Universal Horror monsters (alongside early-thirties Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Invisible Man), so it’s a bit of a surprise to find out, throughout the film, how much of it seems to differ from our codified understanding of the werewolf monster. This film (scripted by legendary SF writer Curt Siodmak) does bring together werewolves and silver, but not necessarily shape-shifting under a full moon—which is a later innovation. As with many Universal Monsters foundational texts, there is a substantial romantic component at work here, and a cinematography that bridges between German expressionism and American film noir. Lon Chaney Jr has quite a presence as the titular wolf man, anchoring a potentially silly story into something with romantic gravitas. The film has surprisingly good makeup and special effects, though they come in fairly late in the movie. Despite some mythology weirdness compared with the contemporary version of the werewolf monster, The Wolf Man did create much of the myth and so remains a mandatory viewing for horror fans—fortunately, it happens to be a decent movie still.