Movie Discussion: Rupert Julian’s The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

  • Monthly Theme: Protohorrorphantomoftheoperaposter
  • The Film: The Phantom of the Opera
  • Country of origin: U.S.A.
  • Date of U.S. release: November 15, 1925
  • Studio: Universal Pictures
  • Distributer: Universal Pictures
  • Domestic Gross: $2 million
  • Budget: ?
  • Director: Rupert Julien
  • Producer: Carl Laemmle
  • Screenwriters: Water Anthony, Elliott J. Clawson, Bernard McConville, Frank M. McCormack, Tom Reed, Raymond L. Schrock, Jasper Spearing & Richard Wallace [all uncredited]
  • Adaptation? Yes, of the 1910 novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra by Gaston Leroux.
  • Cinematographers: Milton Bridenbecker, Virgil Miller, Charles Van Enger [all uncredited]
  • Make-Up/FX: Lon Chaney [uncredited]
  • Music: Joseph Carl Brell, Gustav Hinrichs, et al.
  • Part of a series? Sort of. This was the film that kicked off Universal Pictures’ long string of classic horror films, including 1931’s Dracula, 1931’s Frankenstein, 1932’s The Mummy, 1933’s The Invisible Man, 1941’s The Wolf Man, 1954’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and many others.
  • Remakes? Yes. Leroux’s novel has been adapted for the screen many times. Universal Pictures was involved with three remakes: Arthur Lubin’s 1943 version (starring Claude Rains), Terence Fisher’s 1962 version (starring Herbert Lom) and Dwight H. Little’s 1989 version (starring Robert Englund). Other adaptations include the 1937 Chinese film Song at Midnight, the 1974 made-for-TV film The Phantom of Hollywood, Brian De Palma’s 1974 rock musical Phantom of the Paradise, the 1983 made-for-TV film The Phantom of the Opera (starring Maximilian Schell and Jane Seymour), Dario Argento’s 1987 giallo Opera, the 1989 film Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge, the 1990 two-part made-for-NBC-TV miniseries The Phantom of the Opera, the 1995 Hong Kong film The Phantom Lover, Dario Argento’s 1998 film The Phantom of the Opera, and many others.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? Yes. Horror legend and “Man of a Thousand Faces” Lon Chaney (The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), The Unknown, etc.).
  • Other notables?: Yes. Silent film star Mary Philbin.
  • Awards?: Selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 1998.
  • Tagline: n/a
  • The Lowdown: This is the first real American horror picture and the true beginning of Universal Studios’ classic run of monster movies. The film is an American adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel about a disfigured man (Lon Chaney, Sr.) living in the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera House who becomes enamored with a struggling opera singer (Mary Philbin). Phantom was produced on the heels of Universal’s hugely successful adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which also starred Chaney as the titular monster. Universal spared no expense in Phantom‘s production, even building a gigantic and lavish Paris Opera House set in Sound Stage 28 on the Universal Studios lot. SS28 still contains portions of the opera house set, which is the oldest surviving structure built specifically for a movie in the world. The film was a financial success, laying the groundwork for Universal to go on to adapt many classic Gothic novels in the 1930s and 1940s and, thus, establish the first pantheon in horror cinema – Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Invisible Man, etc.

If you haven’t seen The Phantom of the Opera our discussion will include massive SPOILERS. 

Kristine: So, this is how I feel and what I want to tell everyone: “Feast your eyes! Glut your soul on my accursed ugliness!”

Sean: Right?

Kristine: Yes. That says it all, perfectly.

Sean: Tee hee.

Kristine: And this is what you have said to me pretty much every day of our friendship: “Oh, mad Christine, who would not heed my warning!”

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Phallic Monster salutes the ménage à trois

Sean: True that.

Kristine: Truth talk.

Sean: So, was watching this as boring and tedious as you feared?

Kristine: No, definitely not. There was a lot more comedy than I was expecting, and the set design was awesome. The Phantom was pretty hilarious at times.

Sean: Right? Just to put this in context, this is the first real American horror movie and also the first legit horror movie made by Universal Studios, who would go on to make all those classics in the 1930s and 40s (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, etc.). They’d made The Hunchback of Notre-Dame two years prior in 1923, also starring Lon Chaney in the lead role wearing phantasmagoric make-up he’d designed himself and it was a gigantic success (in fact, it was called Universal’s “Super Jewel” of 1923). But Hunchback is really more of a historical drama than a horror movie. Still, its outrageous success led them to develop Phantom for Chaney – who went from well-regarded character actor to legitimate superstar with Hunchback. I agree that Chaney’s performance as the Phantom is pretty over-the-top in all the right ways. The most hilarious moment, for me, is when the Phantom inserts a long reed into his mouth and then stiffly walks into the underground river until all you can see is the reed sticking up like a periscope. That was completely ridiculous.

Kristine: I liked his super-polite letters to the theatre management and company. ‘Dear Mme. So-and-so, You are going to die tonight unless you do as I say. Kindest regards, The Phantom.’

Sean: Those bitchy letters.

Kristine: Perfect penmanship.

Sean: I was thinking about the premise of our blog – that horror is sort of innately queer – and for me, revisiting The Phantom of the Opera convinced me of that more than ever. That the horror genre just is queer and that the queerness is in its DNA.

Kristine: For sure. I agree, but please lay out your argument for how Phantom proves the genre’s queerness.

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He rises up above the feminine…for what?

Sean: First off, this movie is really a soapy melodrama when you get right down to it. This is something we talked about during our discussion of From Beyond, when you compared The Descent and Dynasty. Phantom is about women and their stage careers and divas flouncing about and bitchy poison pen letters and huge melodramatic gestures and ‘unnatural’ bodies with bizarre biologies. The lingua franca of the movie is gestural. Like you said, some of the Phantom’s gestures are funny, but some I found to be actually uncanny and spooky, like him silently pointing at Christine when she rips his mask off. That was a legitimately upsetting moment.

Kristine: Oh, Christine.

Sean: One set of images that are both überqueer and also made me think of you were all those white ballerinas running through the Gothic backstage set with its ropes and dingy stone walls. When I saw that, I thought, ‘I bet Kristine will dig this.’

Kristine: I did. I loved the idea of using all the things that a theatre would legitimately have lying around – old set pieces, disembodied puppet heads, etc. – and using them to create this uncanny, spooky fantasy realm. And I love a gossipy ballerina. So, this seems like the time to say that I was reminded of another film we have watched…

Sean: Blood and Black Lace?

Kristine: Suspiria. Because of the setting and the great set pieces, but mostly because of the use of color – in the case of The Phantom of the Opera, the sickly washes of green and red – that inform the viewer’s emotions and also the movie’s use of myths/fairy tales. I was thinking about the connections between Phantom and Suspiria and then I looked up Argento because I couldn’t remember what year Suspiria came out… and then I read that he did a remake of Phantom. I was dying. I had no idea.

Sean: Yeah he did, thought its considered one of his worst movies. I’ve never seen it.

Kristine: How weird and funny. Well, do you agree with my Suspiria comparison?

Sean: Oh, for sure. The backstage shenanigans. The dancers. The Gothic underworld that lies beyond the walls, under the floors.

Kristine: The theatre/school as some kind of portal to hell.

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The Voice of the Repressed casts a shadow

Sean: Remember that Suspiria is all about that moment when Suzy solves the riddle and finds the hidden door, which syncs up perfectly to Raoul and Ledoux finding the door behind the mirror and literally going through the looking glass into the mythic/Gothic underworld.

Kristine: Right.

Sean: Remember how the ballerinas all gather round that queeny stagehand?

Kristine: Yes.

Sean: I mean, he was a swishy queen, right?

Kristine: Yes, isn’t he the one who gets murdered?

Sean: No. He finds the murdered brother.

Kristine: Oh, sorry, never mind. That’s right.

Sean: But him and the girls are all gossiping about what the Phantom might be packing…. or lacking. “He had no nose!” “Yes, he did, it was enormous!”

Kristine: I am dying.

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Queen Ladyboy and his posse

Sean: All reacting in horror and shock and… delight? Right?

Kristine: Oh, delight, for sure.

Sean: This gets to one of the essential things about the construction of the Gothic monster. This obsession with the monster’s biology. His Otherness is about his embodiment and his gender status. We are fascinated/repulsed/turned on by that (as reflected in the swishy stagehand and the ballerinas in that scene).

Kristine: I agree with all of that. I think its also important how the Phantom is obsessed with Christine, but doesn’t necessarily want to sleep with her. Remember how he tells her, “This is your bed… And I sleep here” and points to the coffin? He wants her to love him and always return to him, but he doesn’t seem sexually interested in her. He wants her to stop seeing Raoul, so he definitely wants to own/possess her. But the Phantom’s “love” for Christine seems chaste to me, which contributes to his Otherness/queerness.

Sean: See, I was wondering… Doesn’t the movie seem to suggest that he raped her?

Kristine: I’m not sure, but I don’t think so. Do you? He definitely drugged and kidnapped her.

Sean: Let me just point out the title card we get for her first night in the crypt: “The night passed —- a night of vague horrors —- —- tortured dreams —- —-“ And then when she wakes up, he’s playing Don Juan Triumphant at his organ, insinuating he’s made a love conquest.

Kristine: Gross. I am vomiting.

Sean: The organ is his stand-in phallus, for sure.

Kristine: Yes. Okay, that might be the case. But if that is the only way he can be sexual, he’s still a superfreak and not a Real Man.

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Stroking the organ

Sean: Totally.

Kristine: What about the character of Christine? Her only defining personality trait is her career ambition. This ambition is what allows her to be seduced by The Phantom’s promises. So the movie’s narrative could be seen as a cautionary tale to ladies; stay home and be a wifey and stop trying to have it all. It’s interesting that the Phantom supports her career, even allowing her out of his lair to perform on stage, whereas stupid Raoul wants her to end her career to be with him. I hate Raoul. Is Christine a feminist or a silly woman who allowed her ambition to take over her life, with dire results?

Sean: I was totally thinking about these exact same issues. Just that name: Raoul? Gross.

Kristine: I hate it. So nasty, all those vowels together.

Sean: Christine’s ambition is the thing that makes her susceptible to the Phantom’s influence. I definitely think the movie is judging her for that. The idea is that if she’d just settle down with Raoul like a good girl, she’d be safe. Gross. But this makes the Phantom a bit more of a radical figure, because part of his obsession with Christine is about making her career ambitions come true, about granting her worldly power and public adulation. This is part of the diva code.

Kristine: Right. I feel the Phantom is doing more than simply trying to exploit Christine’s Achilles heel. It is important to the Phantom that she receive her Diva status.

Sean: I absolutely agree. But he also talks about Christine in the language of ownership and possession, so it’s incredibly fraught.

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Mounting the beast for the journey to underworld

Kristine: Overflowing with fraught.

Sean: If anything, it shows how Christine is trapped by her circumstances and the social mores of her day. With a career comes allegiance to a “Master,” a “spirit [who] will take form and command [her] love!” Girlfriend hasn’t got a lot of great choices. Though, as is the trope with horror movies, the film resolves her dilemma by pushing her into a hetero-marriage relationship and asking us to believe that is the happy outcome for her. I guess she’ll be giving up that stage career after all.

Kristine: What would you pick? Would you want to run around a creepy but badass underworld lair with Erik and be an opera Diva? Or have a life of ‘contentment’ in the ‘burbs with Raoul?

Sean: Erik’s lair. All the way.

Kristine: Me, too.

Sean: I’d sit on his organ while he played Don Juan Triumphant.

Kristine: I am dying. We forgot to mention Erik’s mask and the wee bit of lace that covers his mouth.

Sean: Oh my god. The mask, the lace, the reveal. Let’s dig into that. Erik’s mask is the forebear to so many horror icons – Michael Myers’ Shatner mask, Jason Voorhees‘ hockey mask, etc.

Kristine: True. The trope is that the gender-ambiguous, biologically-Other bogeyperson must be covered up. It also symbolizes the lack of real personhood of the monster. That is the part of the melodrama of the monster in horror movies.

Sean: Speaking of melodrama, did you notice how every single title card in Phantom has a million exclamation points?

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The porcelain sheath covers/protects the unsightly wound

Kristine: Ha, yes. The cards were written by an overexcited and dramatic scribe.

Sean: For me, it underscored how excessive and overwrought the gestalt of the movie really is. All speech is the speech of excess.

Kristine: Same thing with the big, dramatic gestures and expressions of the actors. That’s the convention in silent movies, right? Because many of the actors came from the stage and, also, they needed to compensate for the lack of sound.

Sean: For sure.

Kristine: You know what? This just came into my head. You know who the Phantom looks like when his face is first revealed? The Tarman. Right?

 

Sean: Erik’s face is skull-like, for sure. Yes. Did you find his face to be shocking or scary?

Kristine: Hmmm…

Sean: Audiences of the day allegedly fainted and swooned and ran from the theater when Erik’s face was revealed.

Kristine: It was definitely more excessive and strange than I thought it would be. I thought it would just be, like, drippy skin and bulging eyes and general run-of-the-mill disfigurement. The Hunchback of Notre Dame style. But Erik’s face was definitely more than that. I wasn’t scared or shocked by it, though.

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Gestural ennui

Sean: Lon Chaney was famous for coming up with his own makeup designs and apparently it was torturously painful to wear his Phantom makeup. His nose was bound unnaturally by wires. He was in a lot of pain when he was wearing it.

Kristine: That works for the character, though, to be in constant pain. Good for Lon – suffering for his art.

Sean: Right. It just reminds me of like, Christian Bale losing 80% body mass for The Machinist.

Kristine: Oh, Christian. Christian definitely sees himself as a Phantom of the Opera-type. Another bitchy queen.

Sean: So the movies that Phantom reminded me of were: Blood and Black Lace, Black Christmas, and Eyes Without a Face. Which brings us back to your earlier comments about the Monster in horror movies being unknowable, expressionless, partially obscured… And how that lack of clarity is part of the horror. Like the man in the attic in Black Christmas who we never really see, or never really know. Or how the killer(s) in Blood and Black Lace are these featureless faces for the first 2/3 of the movie. Or Christiane’s mask in Eyes Without a Face, which signifies an absence, a tragic lack, an emptiness.

Kristine: Agreed.

Sean: At the beginning of Phantom, that old lady ticket-taker says, “I have seen only the cloaked figure of a man who hides his face and will not speak.” The withholding of identity is a big part of the Monster in horror.

Kristine: Right.

Sean: Both Blood and Black Lace and Black Christmas are about these all-female spaces in which this hard-to-discern presence invades, menacing the women there, rendering a previously ‘safe’ space as marked with danger. Same with the Phantom, who intrudes upon this performative, feminine space (even the theater with its trap-doors, labyrinthine passages, layers, and apertures is marked as feminine, womb-like, vaginal – not phallic at all).

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Pandora creeps to the uncanny box

Kristine: I agree with that. I said Christine only has one known personality trait (ambition), but she actually has another one – curiosity and the need to know. This puts her in the company of a bunch of women from myths and fairy tales: Pandora, Bluebeard’s wife, Alice, Goldilocks, etc. And Christine’s relationship with Erik mirrors the relationship of Hades and Persephone, right? She is taken below to a melancholy, colorless, Gothic space and must attempt to bargain her way out. I’m sure there are a lot of other mythical allusions in the movie that went past me, but I caught that one. I wonder if this is why the protagonists of horror movies are so often female, because it is part of the Western tradition in art to render that curiosity and need to reveal, to discover, to know as an inherently feminine characteristic. That impulse to go into the space cloaked in mystery, which it might be wiser to avoid, is the impetus for so many of the movies we’ve covered on the blog, from The Descent to Picnic at Hanging Rock to Martyrs to Suspiria.

Sean: Oh hell yes. The most mythic moment in Phantom, for me, was Christine choosing the descend into the underworld with Erik, and that long weird shot of her on a horse winding down down down down, and those images of the two of them crossing the River Styx with Erik as the Boatman. I thought it was a notable deviation from the Persephone story, because Christine is not kidnapped by Erik, but agrees willingly to go down into the underworld. It is only once she gets there and realizes Erik’s true nature that she regrets her decision and becomes a captive/hostage there.

Kristine: Erik allowing Christine to return to the surface to perform in the opera reminds me so much of Persephone returning to the Earth six months of the year. And Erik making Christine promise not to unmask him is totally Bluebeard. But the girl won’t listen. She’s got to know.

Sean: Yep.

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The hermaphroditic visage is unmasked

Kristine: Would you unmask Erik/look into Bluebeard’s locked room?

Sean: Yes. One must always look.

Kristine: Me, too….

Sean: It is better to know. Better to turn on the Resonator. Another element of the Gothic monster that this movie made me think about is how the monster – besides being biologically Other – is always connected to some tragic or traumatic cultural past/history. The very first title card reads: “Sanctuary of song lovers, The Paris Opera House, rising nobly over medieval torture chambers, hidden dungeons, long forgotten.” Erik’s body itself is meant to be doubled with that medieval past of torture and pain. He is also long forgotten, and that is part of what drives his pain and mania. Remember when he appears at the ball dressed as the Red Death from Poe’s story “The Masque of the Red Death”? And he says, “Beneath your dancing feet are the tombs of tortured men – thus does the Red Death rebuke your merriment!” That trope of the buried past rising up once more, coming back and refusing to stay repressed or ignored really struck me as significant. How that cultural habit of repressing/ignoring the past is one of the things that opens us up/makes us vulnerable to these Gothic incursions (see 12 Years a Slave/Django Unchained for an American example of the return of a repressed historical atrocity).

 

Kristine: Yes. I was just thinking about how forgetting/repressing/denying is what society does and how dangerous that is. I love reading the Phantom as a symbol of all that, and how he will not be ignored. And I love that the theatre, this place of gathering and performance, where new and old myths are presented, is also this tomb.

Sean: Right. “Men once knew me as Erik, but for many years I have lived in these cellars, a nameless legend.”

Kristine: Is that one of the reasons why Erik wants to have influence over Christine’s career? So he can feel relevant and have control – be a man with power – in the current day world?

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The Monster in drag

Sean: That’s an interesting question.

Kristine: Isn’t that one of the traits of ghosts? They manifest just so their presence has to be acknowledged?

Sean: Yes, for sure. This is why I wonder if the mob has to rise up at the end and cast Erik into the Seine in order to keep society moving forward and avoid getting bogged down in the past. Of course, this tension and conflict between repressed trauma and current danger is all played out on a woman’s body – Christine is the pawn in this drama. Part of what staging Erik in Red Death-drag does is it connects Erik back to Poe and to this older Gothic tradition, complete with medieval torture devices (something the Saw movies would later take up as their rasion d’etre).

Kristine:  The idea that society must keep moving forward and avoid getting mired in the past is long-held belief. But poor Christine. Now she is stuck with that drip Raoul and you know he is going to be all, ‘I told you so’ every single fucking day of the rest of her life. I wish she had stuck it out with Erik and been an opera STAHR and been like, ‘Cast party after the opening tonight down by the Styx. Entertainment provided by Erik and his organ!’

 

Sean: Someone needs to remake Phantom with your proposed ending.

Kristine: ‘Pool party by the Styx. BYOR (bring your own reed)!’

Sean: That reed is a metaphor for Erik putting a big dick in his mouth and blowing.

Kristine: For sure. So, what happened to Erik that made him all deformed and emotional?

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He fists the reed so that he can breathe

Sean: Here’s all we know: “Erik – Born during the Boulevard Massacre. Self-educated musician of master of Black Art. Exiled to Devil’s Island for criminal insane. Escaped. Now at large.” Again, the Monster is connected to a historical trauma (the massacre). Of course, he’s also imagined as a musician/devil worshipper.

Kristine: Aren’t they all? Remember Jennifer’s Body?

Sean: Remember when they find the guy’s brother hanging backstage, the authorities remark that he was killed by “The Punjab lasso – the strangler’s cord,” which connects Erik’s ‘black arts’ to the Eastern/Arabic/foreign/Other.

Kristine: Punjab = nasty.

Sean: Poon Jab = a special kind of pelvic thrust.

Kristine: Stop it.

Sean: Hahaha.

Kristine: I’ve been victimized by the poon jab more than once.

Sean: Speaking of Orientalism, it was cracking me up that Ledoux, the Secret Policeman, crept around the movie wearing a fez as his disguise.

Kristine: Another similarity with Suspiria – the freaky cast of supporting characters. So, can you help clarify the role The Phantom of the Opera has in pop culture? And maybe why it is so enduring? It was a book first, then this movie – when did it become a stage production?

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The giant dangling epiglottis/clitoris of Glamour

Sean: The book was published in 1910 and then this movie was made a mere 15 years later. It was a huge hit and has been remade a lot. That obscene and vile Andrew Lloyd Webber musical was catnip for all the theatre people in my high school.

Kristine: I mean, the story is sort of compelling because of all the things we have already talked about – the harkening back to primal myths and fears – but Phantom is also pretty goofy, right?

Sean: Oh, totally goofy. Some adaptations have gotten the camp factor. But the Phantom really is the first Universal Studios monster that attained legendary status, and paved the way for Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster and the rest of that pantheon.

Kristine: I like your observation that this movie, even in 1925, “gets” camp and how theatre people are ridiculous. I was dying laughing when Carlotta, Christine’s opera rival, was singing with her eyelids fluttering and her quavering throat. And I was giggling madly when her yowling turns into a scream as the chandelier falls on the audience during her high note.

Sean: That chandelier falling is perhaps the queeniest disaster sequence in all of cinema. Reminds me of the fatal fruit bowl in Daughters of Darkness.

Kristine: I don’t understand how Argento’s version of this story isn’t flawless and perfect. In my imagination it’s a masterpiece of carnage with, like, each of the crystals on the chandelier piercing through a different audience member’s body, as the camera fetishizes every piece of twinkling glass and drop of blood.

Sean: There are three iconic Phantom moments I’d like to address before we wrap up. These were the images of the Phantom that really jarred me/delighted me (besides his intense pointing and reed-sucking): 1. The Phantom eavesdropping in his Red Death finery while crouching on the head of a gigantic statue of Apollo.

Kristine: Yes.

Sean: I mean…

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The queerness in velvet mounts the Grecian god’s body

Kristine: I know.

Sean: That is camp. That is the image next to camp in the dictionary.

Kristine: Totally. “Red Death finery.”

Sean: 2. The Phantom at the reins of the carriage, careening through the streets, baring his teeth and hissing.

Kristine: That’s me going home after a long night at the club.

Sean: It is everyone’s 4a.m.-self in a single distilled image.

Kristine: Exactly.

Sean: I found that image to be sort of upsetting, actually. Just how he looked – it unnerved me. I think he’s hard to look at.

Kristine: Poor Phantom. Agreed. Knowing that Chaney was actually in physical distress adds to the horror.

Sean: That image of the raving person at the reins of an out-of-control carriage is something that will pop up in dozens of future horror movies.

Kristine: Cool, I like that.

Sean: 3. The Phantom keeping the crowd at bay at the very end with his raised fist, only to reveal that it is empty and laughing just before they attack and tear him apart. That is actually, to me, a moment of real pathos and is very upsetting.

Kristine: Oh, it’s a hate crime.

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Underworld is a dangerous place for sororities

Sean: Complete hate crime. It’s hard not to view him as the queer body there, and the crowd as Arizona Senators.

Kristine: It’s impossible not to view it as exactly that.

Sean: This brings me to my final point – which is that in these old classic monster movies, even as we’re invited to be disgusted by the monster, we’re also meant to identify with him/her/it. Erik is constructed by the movie as The Outsider, and we cannot help but recognize ourselves in him.

Kristine: Oh definitely. The monsters all have these tragic back stories, these ties to a Universal (pun intended) past of pain that the audience recognizes/reckons with.

Sean:  I want to close by saying, the motto of Erik’s that I adopt as my own is: “No longer like a toad in these foul cellars will I secrete the venom of hatred!”

Kristine: Yes.

Sean: That’s me, right?

Kristine: I love Erik/Sean unleashed. Does this mean you are retiring: “Oh, mad Christine, who would not heed my warning!”?

Sean: That is my you-specific motto.

Kristine: Sigh.

Ratings Roundup

The Girl’s Rating: Deserves props for being groundbreaking and innovative AND Batshit insanity AND Queerer than you’d think AND Worth watching for the campy dramz

The Freak’s Rating: Deserves props for being groundbreaking and innovative AND Batshit insanity AND Queerer than you’d think AND Worth watching for the campy dramz

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