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The Sydney Opera House is screaming the Phantom of the Opera, in a double bill with Nosferatu, accompanied by the Concert Hall organ in all its nerve-shuddering glory (with original scores). Andrew L. Urban prepares you for a symphony of horror from these not-so-silent films.

In this space, no-one can hear you scream; thatís because the enormous pipes of the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall are blowing their terrible wind under Dennis Jamesí manic hands, as the two most revered silent horror films unspool almost exactly as they did some 80 years ago, in a symphony of horror.†

And make no mistake, while Nosferatu (1922) and Phantom of the Opera (1925) are silent films in terms of dialogue and effects, the eloquence and power of the music make them anything but silent. The films (both the 35 mm prints are struck from originals) are screening in their original form and at the original projection speed.

"faithful to performance practices of the period"

Dennis James has dedicated a major portion of his international performing career of the last 30 years to preserving, programming and utilizing organ performance with silent films around the world. The musical scores used for these Opera House screenings are either those created for the filmsí original release or new compilations faithful to performance practices of the period.

As many film enthusiasts will know, a then little known Max Schreck created the unforgettable character in Nosferatu, and legends have grown around him, fuelled initially by the fact that he was never seen on the set out of character or make-up. In the wonderfully entertaining and award winning, Shadow of the Vampire (2000), Willem Dafoe recreates the character to haunting and chilling effect.†

This latter film tells the story of German director Friedrich Murnau (John Malkovich) sets out to make a really scary movie (based on Dracula), but canít obtain film rights from Bram Stokerís estate to call it Dracula. Dissent in the ranks raises tensions as Schreckís ghastly shadow looms over the production, his true identity increasingly evident: Murnau has somehow hired a real vampire, and his fee is the gorgeous blood of the lead actress, Greta (Catherine McCormack) Ė if he can control his bloodlust until the final scene.

And in real life, all known prints and negatives of Nosferatu (the 1922 film) were destroyed under the terms of a lawsuit by Stokerís widow; however the film subsequently surfaced in other countries.†

"a mega-budget production"

Donít for a moment imagine that these silent films are low budget movies with flimsy sets and second rate cast. Phantom of the Opera stars the legendary Lon Cheney as Erik/The Phantom, and at US$1 million (in 1925), it is a mega-budget production, with a French designer from the Paris Opera commissioned to recreate the opera house interior.†

The beautiful Mary Philbin, who had made more than a dozen films by 1925, plays Christine. (She plays Agnes Urban in the acclaimed Erich von Stroheim melodrama, Merry-Go-Round [1922]. Rupert Julian is credited as one of the directors, because he was called in to complete the film when producer Irving Thalberg fired Stroheim. Julian directed PhantomÖ.)

In this new age of digital filmmaking, itís good to remember that even silent movies had the power to enthrall and excite us with the power of their stories, characters and images.

Published January 16, 2003

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Phantom of the Opera


Sydney Opera House Concert Hall
Friday, Jan. 31, 8pm: Phantom of the Opera
Saturday, Feb 1, 4pm: Phantom of the Opera
Saturday, Feb 1, 9.30pm: Nosferatu
Tickets: $35/$25
Bookings: Sydney Opera House (02) 9250 7777 or www.sydneyoperahouse.com

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