SCREEN DIARY: PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) at Pitshanger Pictures

31 OCT 2020: RADIANT CIRCUS embarked on a Halloween odyssey to see Lon Chaney’s Phantom Of The Opera resurrected & restored at St. Barnabas Church, Ealing complete with live organ score by Henry Tozer. Here’s what happened…

By RADIANT CIRCUS

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This is a picture of the exterior of St Barnabas Church, Ealing at night before the screening of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) for Halloween 2020.
St Barnabas Church, Ealing home of Pitshanger Pictures.

I’m making a habit of this… as luck (?) would have it, I was in the last Saturday audience to see The Phantom Of The Opera live on stage in the West End before Her Majesty’s Theatre was plunged into darkness along with the rest of the country back in March.

Who knew I’d be leaving a church in a distant West London suburb on another Saturday seven months later to encounter a similar fate. But if there’s any way to head back into the uncertainty of another shutdown, this was definitely it.

The event was a special screening by Pitshanger Pictures of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925), the film club’s first public event since everything went south earlier in the year. Pitshanger Pictures is a regular film club in West London, usually screening a mixture of repertory programming and opera recordings in St Barnabas’ Millennium Church Hall. Every now and then they take to the main church building for silent cinema events with a live organ accompaniment. The recent ones have been with Henry Tozer on the keys, stops and pedals, and the films have been by Fritz Lang. RADIANT CIRCUS had entirely failed to get to WOMAN IN THE MOON (1929) due to transport snafus, so I was more than determined to be at this one. 

What an amazing evening it was. Ian Hamerton and his team had done everything possible to keep the audience safe. Temperatures were checked on arrival, audience members given a printed event guide, complete with map of the venue and its one way systems, before being seated at socially distanced tables. Masks and anti-bac were in obvious supply, and the audience reduced in size to give everyone space. The event guide gave instructions and a mobile number for remote ordering from the bar via text message, resulting in RADIANT CIRCUS ordering a bottle of red (it seemed appropriate for the night…) which was shared with a slightly surprised but welcoming member of their regular audience sat nearby. If you can’t get chatting in the darkness to total strangers during a global pandemic, then when can you.

This is a picture of the interior of St Barnabas Church, Ealing during the screening of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) for Halloween 2020.
Henry Tozer plays beneath the rose window for THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925).

The rest of the set up was simple. The audience was sat facing the rear of the church, a cinema screen positioned under the organ balcony. Composer and gospel choir master Henry Tozer sat silhouetted against his instrument high above us, kept company only by a small monitor in synch with the much larger screen we enjoyed below. The film was the 2013 restoration complete with extensive 1929 colourisation and the full technicolour sequence for the masquerade ball and scenes with the Phantom atop the roof of the opera house (Lon Chaney’s ghoulish red cape billowing in the wind is so crystal clear in this restoration it’s almost hallucinatory). 

And it’s this dipping in and out of different film technologies that lent this screening of PHANTOM a curious live VJ vibe, as if some of Henry’s furious footwork was also spinning us through a cinematic hybrid of experimental film formats. Of course, these various historic tricks and modifications were designed to lure audiences into the darkness with all the latest attractions, and it was good to see a full house almost a hundred years later. Anyone who rails against 3D and other exhibition formats needs to remember the history of cinema, with its wave after wave of technological innovation and showmanship that horror cinema itself has always been at the crest of.

This version of the story plunges deeper into the darkness at the heart of the Paris Opera House than the stage version, where Lon Chaney’s phantom is a truly murderous beast (rather than the creepy lovelorn #metoo music executive on stage). This is a Phantom equally at home in the shadows as underwater, using his signature Punjab lasso and ancient torture chambers to protect his subterranean lair. The chandelier drop is stunning but it’s the abstract underworld that really brings the film to vivid life. Or rather, sets the stage for Lon Chaney. Forget the camp white mask of the stage show, this is a monster aspiring to be human, his mask a painted face barely veiling his madness. Lon Chaney gives a lithe, feline performance (the moment when he rises up, unfurling his limbs when Christine asks if he’s the phantom is spine tingling…) and, of course the combination of facial distortion and makeup creates a legendary and still-haunting visage.

But the last word should really go to Henry Tozer for his ability to both seduce, charm and, at times, overwhelm his audience with sound. From cheeky opening chords winking at Lloyd Webber, to the sustained horror of shrill high notes and deep, resonant drones, Tozer was on top of this event, both literally and artistically. Watching him in his elevated position beneath the Church’s beautiful rose window, lit by exterior illuminations, was an atmospheric thrill all of its own, a gothic realm to make Tim Burton weep. But, with Henry’s rock’n roll length hair and back turned until a final bow, his performance felt strangely reminiscent of De Palma’s far funkier horror show, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE.

Thank you to Pitshanger Pictures for a wonderful evening and to Henry Tozer for giving this Phantom a terrifying, emotionally shattering score. Feeling the Phantom’s spirit reverberate through you as Tozer’s epic sound filled the cavernous church, made this one of the most memorable film events of a remarkably strange screen year. 

Like all cinema exhibitors, Pitshanger Pictures will return to the darkness. I look forward to being back in their excellent company before too long.

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