Category Archives: film

Movie reviews. Genre commentary.

Unmasking the Phantom: Romanticizing the Face of Horror

Phantom of the Opera Mask
Phantom of the Opera Mask

Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel, The Phantom of the Opera, has been filmed at least a half a dozen times, turned into a very successful Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, and used as inspiration for one of the most ubiquitous halloween masks (that many wear without ever having seen Lon Chaney’s makeup or even heard “Music of the Night”). Still, there’s something in the mask itself that is inarguably attractive. We hide our true selves — a self that, perhaps, only a lover or trusted friend can know. Not the self we are at work, or at a party. Carl Jung would say those are masks of the persona: the ego adapting to its circumstances. But the mask that hides a self that is something horrible, or something to be pitied (or both)?  That’s something different altogether.

In the gothic tradition to which Leroux’s novel belongs (along with all the adaptations that come later), the masked face is romanticized for that very reason. Is there a tortured man beneath the mask that needs only find love to be free? Or is there a fiend waiting for us.

THE NOVEL (1910)
Lon Chaney as The Phantom of the Opera
Lon Chaney, The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

For Leroux, the mask as symbol is quite complex; in addition to having his phantom, Erik, hide a hideous visage, Leroux writes that “none will ever be a true Parisian who has not learned to wear a mask of gaiety over his sorrows and one of sadness, boredom, or indifference over his inward joy.” We are challenged to confront that we all wear masks — not just the ghost of the Opera house that longs for the beautiful Christine.

The tale is familiar (well, to people like me it is): Erik hears Christine sing, and is captivated. But he knows himself to be so deformed that Christine will be repulsed by him. So he waits, secretly aiding Christine is her career. Minor characters are literally disposed of, and the main characters eventually find themselves at a pivotal moment when the mask will come off. Hideous boy will stand before beautiful girl, and all will be revealed.

But all what? Disgust? Pity? Overwhelming love?

Here’s where the novel and its many adaptations differ.

In the novel, when Erik is alone with Christine — away from her suitor, Raoul (whom Erik has imprisoned) — he lifts his mask, revealing his deformity, and kisses her on the forehead. She returns his kiss. Erik then reveals that he has never received a kiss — not even from his mother — and is quite overwhelmed with equal parts sadness and joy. He tells Christine that he has never felt so close to another human being, and turns from wicked ways — releasing Raoul. Why? The novel makes it clear: he has been saved by love. Indeed, Leroux has him dying because of love at the end of the novel. Christine buries him, then takes off with the handsome Raoul.


Fifteen years later, in 1925, Universal would adapt the novel to the silent silver screen.  Its producer Carl Laemmle (who would later go on to produce both Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) for Universal), chose Lon Chaney — the man of a thousand faces — for the central role. And in a post World War I world where the horrors of war left mutilated men, it is not beyond reason to assume that Chaney based at least some of his makeup on the poor broken souls who had returned from Europe with faces torn apart by German shrapnel.

Noseless and lipless, with a sunken-eyed face that looks more like a skull than that of a man, Chaney’s phantom goes way beyond the novel with the extent of Erik’s deformity, and it changes the whole tone of the story. Despite Christine still getting the attention from the phantom that leads to he success at the Opera house, her fear — our fear — is real. This phantom illicits horror — or at the very best, our pity. And instead of Erik lifting his mask in an act of love, Chaney’s phantom is dramatically unmasked, by Christine, in one of cinema’s most written-about reveals.


Erik’s unmasking is not his own decision. It is sudden. It is terrifying. And it leaves Christine horrified on the floor. A captured Raoul — again, Christine’s suitor — can only be freed if Christine makes a choice of two levers. A challenge is made by Erik. One lever will free Raoul. One will blow up the Opera House. But there’s a catch: free Raoul, and agree to marry Erik.

The tension is palpable. The audience sees Erik as a true monster, and wants so very much for Christine and Raoul to be together. And that is what they get, in a sacrifice made by Erik. He tricks Christine. His intention was apparently to free Raoul all along, and escape the Opera House with Christine. Only he is thwarted by an angry mob who attacks him and throws him into the Seine. Christine and Raoul? They are seen on honeymoon at picture’s end.

Still, the filmmakers initially intended to preserve the original ending of the novel.  They filmed scenes in which Erik dies of a broken heart at his organ after Christine leaves him. But the preview audience apparently hated this ending. They wanted the monster punished, and the lovers to be reunited.


Throughout the many adaptions — from Claude Rains in 1943, to Herbert Lom in Hamer’s version of 1962, to Brian de Palma’s bizarre Phantom of the Paradise (1974) — the stories change.

Music becomes the true love of the phantom in some. Disfigurement at brith because a tragic encounter with acid in another. But the central theme beneath all is this push and pull between the beautiful chanteuse and the disfigured musician. Sometimes repulsion. Sometimes attraction. Always Romantic in the Gothic novel sense of the term. Except, perhaps, in DePalma’s work, where the Gothic gives way to Glam.

THE MUSICAL (1986 — present day)
Phantom of the Opera musical
Phantom of the Opera musical

But outside of the novel, no version is more romanticized than the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical — which manages to fuse so many elements of the tale told over the last hundred years. In the blending of outcomes, the best and worst case scenarios for poor Erik co-exist. Yes, he is hideous. But he is romantic. And despite Christine’s love for Raoul, there is a bond between her and the phantom — one that often finds its way, as with most musicals, into song — and a gift of a ring to Christine.

The unmasking has mixed reaction — at first fear, but it soon becomes pity. This pity leads to tenderness. And tenderness, to love. At the end, Erik realizes that despite his love for Christine, he must release her to Raoul. The rightful couple begin to escape Erik’s subterranean lair, but not before Christine decides to return the ring that Erik had given her as a token of his love. She finds instead a mob that has descended into the lair to kill the phantom. But as she lifts aside the cloak where she believes Erik to be, she finds only… a mask.


Masks play a central role in all adaptations of the Phantom of the Opera. Some are there for sudden horror (kill the monster!). And some are there for romantic imaginings (where did the poor tortured artist go?).

Masque of the Red Death
Masque of the Red Death

Some masks are even there to further hide the true persona — or perhaps remind us all that despite love or terror, death awaits us all. In many adaptations, Erik attends a ball dressed as Poe’s Red Death. His mask is invariably a skull. Memento Mori. The reminder that life is fleeting, and that we all must die.

In the end, it is the use of the mask — and the unmasking — that addresses our own extremes of attraction and repulsion. The persona projected by those behind masks can be quite attractive, and we can easily fall in love with the man or woman behind the mask. But in our subconscious minds, there may always be the question of what is that same man or woman hiding… and why. We become suspicious while at the same time intrigued.

We flirt with what is captivating, while fearing being held captive.

And masks are rarely literal.


Seeing “Us”: Jordan Peele’s Doppelgangers

Lupita Nyong'o in Us (2019)
Lupita Nyong’o in Us (2019)

Highly original — yet ultimately flawed — Jordan Peele’s Us takes the age-old tale of the doppelgänger and carries it to nightmarish extremes. With none-too-subtle political commentary on the dark side of a soulless nation, the film is nonetheless one of the most effective horror films of the past decade, delivering many a genuine scare. At its core is a fear that has plagued humankind for centuries: the double — the worst part of ourselves… made flesh.

The Student of Prague (1913)
The Student of Prague (1913)

An old theme tackled numerous times by writers like Edgar Allan Poe in “William Wilson” (1839) and Dostoevsky in “The Double” (1846), the doppelgänger (literally “double goer”) as exact duplicate found its way into cinema as early as the silent Student of Prague (1913). Spencer Tracy’s turn as Dr. Jekyll into an almost identical (but sinister) Mr. Hyde (in 1941) further upped the ante of the doppelgänger as true double on the silver screen. But the theme would not be as effectively handled as it was in 1956 with the arrival of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Even its 1978 remake would carry the inevitable metaphor that mirror images of ourselves not only say something ourselves, but also the world in which we live.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

In 1956, anti-communist paranoia and tyranny of McCarthyism, for example, at the very least informed the watching of the film — if not its making. Less overt, but still there, the 1978 remake smacks of a creeping conservatism threatening to overtake ineffectual intellectuals. Both films are reflections of their times.

So, too, is Us.


A doppelgänger is only hinted at in the opening minutes of Us as a young girl named Adelaide encounters a unsettling image of herself in a funhouse mirror. The true horror of the movie does not begin until a family — whose matriarch, Red (played with intensity by Lupita Nyong’o) as the young girl now grown — encounters a silent, sinister, and oddly similar family standing in the driveway of their otherwise ideal summer home.

The doppelganger family of Us
The doppelganger family of Us

We soon learn that these doubles are violent — some disturbed and sympathetic. Others are downright sadistic. And some (though not all) are seemingly confused by who or what they are.

They are “tethered,” explains Red. And the tether can apparently be broken by murder. Only then, it seems, can the monsters be free of lives spent in the shadows. Or more specifically — as the opening title card makes clear — lives spent below ground.

Peele adeptly digs deep into the bag of tricks used before him by filmmakers like Hitchcock, Carpenter and Craven. From the motionless figure that blocks a path, to the deft (and borderline deafening) use of sound to indicate movement off screen, Peele’s direction is impeccable, earning him a place among the best of the genre (high and deserved praise after only two movies!). He delivers not only on blood and gore, but much-needed suspense in an age when too many horror films rely on nothing more than the sudden scare.

Still, the well-built tension abates when Peele begins to over analyze his premise. The conceit that attempts to explain the motivations of the doppelgängers in some ways undermines the film. It is convoluted, and it begins to unravel the more the audience thinks about it. Why do these doubles do what they do? Without giving too much away, I will say that they have been invisible for too long. They want their time in the sun.

And therein is where the socio-political message of Us lies.  It is actually there early on in the film in the form of the first answer given by Red; when she is asked who they are, she simply replies: “We are Americans.”

Peele’s doppelgängers are, (Peele’s) pun intended, us. Us as Americans. Us as families. Us as people who feel, who breathe, who bleed. But it’s the U.S. of the downtrodden. The poor. The disenfranchised. Those we do not see, or choose not to see.

The problem is that, in the end, it is not important why the doubles exist: just that they do. Horror in its purest form often works best when it is explained the least. As Lovecraft made clear decades ago, the greatest fear is fear of the unknown. Trying to build a backstory for the doubles’ reason for being ultimately breaks the tension. It pushes the audience’s suspension of disbelief too far. And it is not needed in a movie of this kind. Reveal just a little and you have the audience terrified. Reveal too much, and you have them confused.

For the film to have been the true masterpiece it could have been, the origins of the doppelgängers need never have been revealed.

It would have made their killing spree all the more terrifying, and their reach across America all the more political.