Second Time Around

The Phantom of the Opera
Alone among the old horror standbys, the Phantom of the Opera is a man among monsters -- a disfigured musical genius named Erik who wreaks havoc in that most stylish of cultural haunts, the Grand Opera House of Paris. The idea behind the figure of the Phantom is that art is dangerous -- as dangerous as sex is in vampire movies, and sometimes as sexy, too. In the 1925 production, Lon Chaney is a man so spectral that he's thoroughly believable as a perverted muse -- the spirit of romantic music gone rotten. Yet despite his skeletal appearance, he moves on his victims with agility and dispatch.

The production's baroque extravagance makes this version of the tale a seductive bad dream of High Art meeting High Society. Cavaliers and courtesans whirl above former dungeons and torture chambers now used as prop rooms and dressing rooms. Even when Erik is just a profile in the shadows beyond the dressing room of the ingenue, Christine, he holds himself like a spellbinding impresario. When he plays out his love to her on his pipe organ, or when she uncovers his monstrosity in an instant that turns his passion to poison, he's an indelible caricature of erotic ardor -- and homicidal bitterness. In the film's most stunning coup de theatre, he wades into a masked ball costumed as Poe's Red Death. But it's the Phantom's failed seduction of his love -- and her unveiling of the scarred face behind his eerie featureless mask -- that gives the film its enduring, lurid allure.

-- Michael Sragow

The Phantom of the Opera screens Thursday and Friday, Sept. 18 and 19, at 8 p.m. at Grace Cathedral, 1100 California (at Taylor). The silent movie will be accompanied by Christopher Putnam on the church's organ. Tickets are $12-25; call 749-6304.

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