What better way to celebrate Halloween than with Lon Chaney in a darkened theater?
That's what we'll be doing on Wednesday, Oct. 31 at the Rogers Center for the Arts on the campus of Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass. Join us for a screening of 'Phantom of the Opera' (1925), the original screen adaptation starring Lon Chaney in the title role.
I have a special place in my heart for 'Phantom,' not because I'm a creepy thwarted musician (although maybe it's truer than I think) but because it was the first full-length silent film for which I did live accompaniment.
It was for a one-off Halloween screening at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, N.H. that our newspaper, HippoPress, was co-sponsoring. I had agreed to do the music live as a way to make the event more unusual and, frankly, save money.
But I had just completed the score to an independent feature film, 'Dangerous Crosswinds' (2005), made right here in New Hampshire by director Bill Millios, and I was eager to do more. But because no other directors were knocking at my door, I figured this would be a good way to keep going and do more film music.
And so we did 'Phantom of the Opera.' Because there wasn't a lot of time to prepare the music in details, I knew all along I'd be winging it. I watched the film several times and developed a few ideas in advance, but that was it. Next thing I knew, it was the day of the performance.
I remember being a little nervous by the prospect of sitting down at the keyboard and staying with a full-length film from beginning to end. But then 'Phantom' started, and so did the music. And as the movie ran, I found that creating a score in real time to support the on-screen action was something I could manage, at least for the moment.
So I kept at it, pleased that I was able to shift from scene to scene, but also do things within a scene to bring out changes in tone or emotion or byplay between characters.
Then, about halfway through the film, during the masked ball scene, I found myself working with melodic material (a brisk, somewhat demented-sounding waltz) that I had just come up with on the spot, and was twisting it and shaping it to suit the action.
Specifically, there's a moment where the Phantom stops the party and dramatically threatens the revelers, and then departs, after which the party-goers pause for just a moment before diving right back in to fun and games.
The Phantom, costumed as 'Death,' brings the masked ball to a halt—but only temporarily.
I found the moment as staged in the film to actually be somewhat comic, and so brought that out in the music, shifting rapidly from the tense "Phantom" music back to the demented waltz, making it sound even a bit more heavier and more demented.
(And in being comic, it served to further deepen the Phanton's isolation from others—geez, this guy just can't connect with anyone! And it also showed the tragic aspect of his character, too—most of humanity just can't understand the depth of the emotions which drove him to become 'The Phantom.' Wow!)
And even as I was playing it, another part of me was absorbing the whole effect, pleased that it seemed to work so effectively. "Hey, I can do this," I remember thinking.
And at that point, I realized that I could actually do this—that I could somehow juggle creating music in real time and also staying with a film's dramatic line, always being somewhat aware of what the current scene is leading towards, what's likely to come next, and how it all fits into the whole arc of the story.
It kind of felt like that dim memory of first riding a bike successfully, without training wheels or without someone holding on to me.
Looking back, that moment at the keyboard was a major realization for me, as it marked the opening up of all the explorations of film and music that have followed. It made me want to do more, not just to do music, but also to experience silent film in a new way.
And eventually, it made me want to see if I could create music that would help moviemakers of yesterday somehow connect with audiences of today. There's a great deal of power still in these silent films, I felt, and maybe my sort of music could help them reach beyond the film museum and actually affect people and engage people, which they were designed to do, and which is why we first fell in love with the movies.
So much, but it all started with sitting down to do music for 'Phantom' that night at the Palace. And so I'm pleased to have the film in this year's Halloween rotation. Tonight's screening at the Rogers Center for the Arts will be the fourth (and final!) time I do it this season, and I'm really looking forward to helping support Lon Chaney terrorize all of Paris once again.
For more info on the screening, here's the text of the press release that went out earlier this month. Also, tonight's screening will be introduced by noted film scholar Christopher DiGrazia, so come by at 6:30 p.m. and take in his presentation prior to our 7 p.m. screening. See you there...if you dare! Cue evil laugh music. Bwah-ha-ha-ha!
Subtle? You expected subtle?
MONDAY, OCT. 15, 2012 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • firstname.lastname@example.org
'Phantom of the Opera' at Merrimack College
on Wednesday, Oct. 31
Classic silent horror film starring Lon Chaney to be screened with live music week on Halloween night; free and open to the public
NORTH ANDOVER, MASS.—It was cinema's first real shocker—a movie so frightening that audiences would shriek in terror and even faint. It was 'The Phantom of the Opera' (1925), the silent horror film starring legendary actor Lon Chaney. The classic tale of the mad musician who lurks in the shadows of the Paris Opera House will be revived with live music on Wednesday, Oct. 31 at 7 p.m. at the Rogers Center for the Arts on the campus of Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass.
The screening, the latest in the Rogers Center's silent film series, will feature live accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based composer who specializes in creating scores for silent films. Admission is free. The program will be proceeded by a discussion of the film starting at 6:30 p.m.
'The Phantom of the Opera,' adapted from a 19th century novel by French author Gaston Leroux, featured Chaney as the deformed Phantom who haunts the opera house. The Phantom, seen only in the shadows, causes murder and mayhem in an attempt to force the opera's management to make the woman he loves into a star.
The film is most famous for Lon Chaney's intentionally horrific, self-applied make-up, which was kept a studio secret until the film's premiere. Chaney transformed his face by painting his eye sockets black, giving a skull-like impression to them. He also pulled the tip of his nose up and pinned it in place with wire, enlarged his nostrils with black paint, and put a set of jagged false teeth into his mouth to complete the ghastly deformed look of the Phantom.
Chaney's disfigured face is kept covered in the film until the now-famous unmasking scene, which prompted gasps of terror from the film's original audiences.
"No one had ever seen anything like this before," said Rapsis, who will accompany the film. "Chaney, with his portrayal of 'The Phantom,' really pushed the boundaries of what movies could do."
Chaney, known as the "Man of a Thousand Faces" due to his versatility with make-up, also played Quasimodo in the silent 'Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923) and circus performer 'Alonzo the Armless' in Tod Browning's 'The Unknown' (1927).
The large cast of 'Phantom of the Opera' includes Mary Philbin as Christine Daaé, as the Phantom's love interest; character actor Snitz Edwards; and many other stars of the silent period.
'The Phantom of the Opera' proved so popular in its original release and again in a 1930 reissue that it led Universal Studios to launch a series of horror films, many of which are also regarded as true classics of the genre, including Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), and The Mummy (1932).
The silent film version of 'Phantom' also paved the way for numerous other adaptations of the story, up to and including the wildly successful Andrew Lloyd Webber musical from 1986 that continues to run on Broadway and in productions around the world.
The original silent 'Phantom' featured lavish sets, including a large theater designed to represent the sprawling interior of the Paris Opera House. After shooting was complete, the set was never torn down and continues in use today as part of Universal's Stage 28; it was seen most recently in 2011's 'The Muppet Movie' as the abandoned Muppet Show theater.
Rapsis said 'The Phantom of the Opera' was not made to be shown on television or viewed on home entertainment centers. In reviving silent films, the Rogers Center aims to show them as they were meant to be seen—in high quality prints, on a large screen, with live music, and with an audience.
"All those elements are important parts of the silent film experience," said Rapsis, who improvises accompaniment as a film is screened. "Recreate those conditions, and the classics of early Hollywood leap back to life in ways that can still move audiences today. They all featured great stories with compelling characters and universal appeal, so it's no surprise that we still respond to them."
Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra and creates a traditional "movie score" sound.
Organizers say the original silent film version of 'The Phantom of the Opera' is not only a terrific movie, but also a fun way for families to mark Halloween night.
And above all, be prepared to get scared.
"Remember—in silent film, no one can hear you scream," Rapsis said.
‘The Phantom of the Opera’ (1925), the classic silent horror film starring Lon Chaney, will be shown on Wednesday, Oct. 31 at 7 p.m. at the Rogers Center for the Arts, located on Walsh Way on the campus of Merrimack College, 315 Turnpike St., North Andover, Mass. Admission is free. For more information, call the Rogers box office at (978) 837-5355. For more info on the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.
Upcoming silent film programs at the Rogers Center include:
• Wednesday, April 3, 2013, 7 p.m.: "The Mark of Zorro" (1920) starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr.; Douglas Fairbanks Sr. stars in the still-thrilling original adaptation of the tale of a masked avenger who sought justice in Spanish California. Great crowd-pleaser that had an enormous impact on popular culture, including inspiration for the "Batman" comic book series.