Once upon a time, horror movies were lavish period pieces—the madly romantic province of tortured, bizarrely disfigured loners, typically played by Lon Chaney, hopelessly in love with beautiful young girls. Universal’s 1923 blockbuster The Hunchback of Notre Dame established a formula that Carl Laemmle’s studio would rework throughout the silent era and, in a more stringent form, even into the 1940s.
A pinnacle of the Hollywood fantastic, Universal’s 1925 The Phantom of the Opera, directed by Rupert Julian, showcased Chaney’s quintessential performance—hideous skull face, demented posing in the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera House. Narrative is nearly nonexistent (the movie was re-edited both before and after its release), accentuating the nightmare that pursues ingenue Mary Philbin. Tinted and featuring a lengthy color sequence using two separate processes, Phantom is pure cinema of attractions. Milestone’s comprehensive two-disc set features both the 1925 original and a restoration of the 1929 re-release, with a choice of soundtracks, as well as assorted interviews, commentaries, and trailers.
The Man Who Laughs (1928), also newly released on DVD, is a less celebrated but equally grotesque example of the Universal formula—adapted, like Hunchback, from Victor Hugo. With Chaney now at MGM, Universal replaced him with German actor Conrad Veidt (approaching the midway point in his personal Caligari-to-Hitler journey, from Cesare the somnambulist to the Nazi officer of Casablanca). Veidt’s masochistic makeup produces a hideous fixed grimace (although here Mary Philbin plays blind and can’t see it). The movie’s underlying kinkiness might be attributed to German director Paul Leni, whose fabulous sets and lighting epitomize the lush mise-en-scène of the late silent era.