Scoring scary `Phantom'

FILM

March 11, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The ballyhoo behind the abysmal film of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera has blown some good news movie-lovers' way. Spurred by the excitement surrounding that picture before anybody had seen it, the Alloy Orchestra, sorcerers of percussive music made with unconventional instruments, devoted the winter to preparing a new score for the peerlessly creepy 1925 Lon Chaney version.

"We knew that the `new'Phantom was coming out, and we were assuming it was going to be a big hit," says Alloy co-founder Ken Winokur, on the phone from Cambridge, Mass. "Our philosophy became: `All the critics are talking about how much better the original is. So let's show people the original!'"

The score was finished March 4. Alloy's happy collaborations with the Maryland Film Festival have resulted in Baltimore's becoming the site for the world premiere of the score and of a print struck from the best possible source material, tonight at 7:30 and tomorrow at 2 p.m. in MICA's Brown Center (1301 Mount Royal Ave.). Tickets are $15 ($10 students and seniors).

With help from restoration expert David Shepard, Winokur promises a print "close to the original coloration" - no small boast, since The Phantom has 218 tint changes and a famous sequence when the screen bursts into Technicolor for the Paris Opera's masked ball.

Winokur and his wife, filmmaker Jane Gillooly, have taken Alloy's commitment to silents to a dizzying new height: They've bought this edition of The Phantom of the Opera and started their own small silent film company, Box V, named for the Phantom's box in the Paris Opera. They intend to "restore films, write new scores, make new prints and distribute them."

It's a mouth-watering prospect. Alloy's composer-musicians - Winokur on percussion and clarinet, Terry Donahue on musical saw and accordion and Roger C. Miller on keyboards - do more than create sounds that add to a film's surface tingle. In composing sessions, they jam and riff to a movie's images, and achieve a fresh understanding of a picture from the inside out. Their scores bring audiences to euphoric highs.

Winokur sees what the 2004 director, Joel Schumacher, didn't: that the Phantom is both a man among monsters and the skeleton in opera's closet. As he tutors young singer Christine and tries to separate her from her true love, Raoul, he's the spirit of romantic music gone rotten. Yet he's still persuasive enough as a vengeful human to rouse marrow-deep fright when he moves on his victims with relentless dispatch.

"Despite the movie's campiness ... the Phantom retains a palpable terror," says Winokur. When he appears as Poe's Red Death atop the opera house, it's scary because he's a man obsessed, "not someone who's going to swoop in on two lovers with razors attached so he can slice them up."

Chaney dueled with the main director, Rupert Julian, because he feared that the filmmaker's lavish set pieces would swallow up his character. (Others contributed to the heavily reshot and recut silent versions in 1925 and 1929, as well as the 1929 sound release; this print is based primarily on a 1929 re-editing.) Once Chaney appears, the movie's quality skyrockets, probably because he directed the Phantom's scenes himself.

Chaney devised his own gimmicks to achieve a living, breathing death's-head grin. But the star also imbued the Phantom with a lithe expressiveness, from that naked skull to his fingertips.

Both the Paris Opera and the movie border on inertia and decadence until the Phantom jolts them to life. Rather than emphasize the way this film splits in half, Winokur and company strove to unify it. "Roger's keyboards become more prominent in this score because it's one of our most melodic. The clarinet, the musical saw and the accordion come forward, too, because a lot of drumming would break the tense mood we try to sustain before the Phantom's big terrorizing scenes."

Alloy calls its dominant theme "The Phantom's Sorrow." And that's fitting. More than the final contest between the Phantom and Raoul, it's the Phantom's failed seduction of his love - and her unveiling of the scarred face behind his eerie mask - that gives the film an emotional depth charge. When he plays "Don Juan Triumphant" on his organ, or when the revelation of his monstrosity turns his ardor to poison, he's an indelible, grotesque portrait of amorous longing and homicidal bitterness.

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