The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
This is a silent film, starring Lon Chaney – the “Man of a Thousand Faces” – as the Phantom. I’m most familiar with the musical, but since that obviously didn’t exist at this point, this film is based on the book by Gaston Leroux, though I haven’t read that so I can’t say how faithful it is. Without being able to use any sound besides the background music, the film does some great work with visuals: from the maze-like underground of the theatre where the Phantom dwells, to the choreography of the performance scenes. The scene where the chandelier falls on the audience falls on the audience looks very alarming for a film of this time. The design of the Phantom is also done very well: he’s only seen in shadow for much of the beginning, which his wide-brimmed hat lends itself well to – and when we do see him, his mask appears to have a sad expression to reflect the tragic side of his character. As for when his face is revealed…it’s a far cry from Gerard Butler’s bad sunburn. It’s a bit difficult to determine how we should view the Phantom: while there are times early on where we definitely feel sorry for him, his behaviour does become more outright villainous as the film progresses. As for the other characters, I liked how active Raoul is even before the climax, and I found Christine to be a bit more intelligent and interesting than in the musical, even if she apparently couldn’t figure out that the secretive ghost who’s been teaching her is in fact the Phantom that’s been terrorising the opera house. The film is also surprisingly dramatic at parts, particularly the ending. Another silent film that has aged well. Rating: 3.5/5.
Generally regarded as one of the classic vampire films, this adaptation – which was adapted more from a stage play than the original novel – stars Bela Lugosi, whose name would become synonymous with the character. You certainly can’t fault Lugosi’s performance. He effectively combines false gentlemanly civility with the more animalistic behaviour that betrays his true nature, and the multiple shots of him staring at the camera with his eyes highlighted never get any less chilling. Dwight Frye as Renfield is also very good: one of the creepiest shots in the whole film is when we see him in the cargo hold of Dracula’s ship, staring up from the bottom of the stairs, grinning and giggling to himself. The cinematography, general lack of music, and performance by Lugosi make this an incredibly atmospheric film – but some parts of it have not aged so well. For Dracula’s animal transformations, we only get a fake bat on a string being bobbed up and down outside a window, and a character looking outside and declaring he can see a wolf running across the garden. Probably due to rules on film at the time, we never actually see Dracula bite anyone, or any vampire stakings. And the climax feels extremely rushed. Still, worth a watch for vampire fans. Rating: 3.5/5.
The Running Man (1987)
Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Ben Richards, a man living in a dystopian future who is framed for massacring rioting citizens and subsequently forced to participate in a TV show called The Running Man, where criminals must fight through deadly obstacles in exchange for reduced sentences or pardons. I find there’s not much I can really say about this film: it’s not exactly complicated. I only had a look at it because I’m a big Schwarzenegger fan, and he’s easily the best thing the film has going for it with his never-ending stream of cheesy one-liners. Besides that, the film just screams ‘1980s’ with its soundtrack and flamboyant visuals and outfits; it’s extremely overblown all around, which is why if it’s supposed to be social commentary on the public enjoying shallow, violent programming, it doesn’t really work. And even the action scenes are pretty uninspired. Rating: 2.5/5.
The Elephant Man (1980)
This film is based on the true story of Joseph Merrick (named John in the film), a heavily deformed man living in Victorian England, starring John Hurt as Merrick and Anthony Hopkins as Frederick Treves, the doctor who becomes his friend. Despite being released in 1980, the film is designed to look like one made decades earlier, shot in black and white, and with limited background music: this creative decision lends itself very well to the subject matter and the era in which the film is set, making the whole thing very sombre. There are also some surreal dream-like sequences, which also fit well with the external nature of Merrick himself. The makeup for Merrick is perfect, looking just like photographs of the man himself; Hurt also does a fantastic job with the movements, voice and restricted expressions. The film certainly succeeds in making us feel sympathy for Merrick, though that is very easy to do; it does feel like an easy target in some ways, and doesn’t really convey any complex messages besides the obvious of valuing a person by what’s inside. Still, a really great, artistic film. Rating: 4/5.