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This 'Phantom' is triumph of sound, vision

The most awe-inspiring cinematic special effect I've seen with my kids lately -- the one they were still chattering about days later -- isn't computer-generated. It isn't even in a talking picture.

It's the nighttime sequence on the roof of the Paris Opera in the 1925 silent classic ''The Phantom of the Opera" -- or, rather, the 1929 re-release version with color effects that will be showing tonight at the Somerville Theatre, with live musical accompaniment by the acclaimed Alloy Orchestra.

The scene is this: Christine, the ingenue opera singer played by Mary Philbin, has snuck up to the roof with her lover Raoul (Norman Kerry) to plan a getaway from the corpse-faced madman (Lon Chaney) who wants her for himself. The couple has left the masked ball below, a peppermint extravaganza of early Technicolor hues, and they huddle at the base of a giant statue, whispering endearments. The camera looks up. Atop the statue sits the Phantom in his Death's Head costume, his cape hand-tinted blood red and billowing into the Paris night. We can't hear what the lovers say, but the Phantom hears everything.

It's an unforgettable image in a grand, pulpy potboiler of a suspense melodrama, and that slash of color adds everything to its impact. ''The Phantom of the Opera" was never a brilliant movie, but it remains great, ghoulish fun, with Chaney tiptoeing the line between sympathy and shudders. At the very least, it beats last year's Andrew Lloyd Webber/Joel Schumacher kitsch-o-rama ''Phantom" to pieces, even if the Chaney version makes the mistake of bringing the chandelier crashing down in the first act.

The set piece scene, of course, is down in the Phantom's crypt, when Christine -- an opportunistic ninny if ever there was one -- whips off her mentor's mask right after he has told her not to, and Chaney's hollow-skull visage gasps out at us in one of the legendary ''boo" shots in the movies. The mask the Phantom wears before and after that scene may be more unsettling, though: a bland plaster face with mannequin eyes and a ribbon of gauze hinting at the wrecked mouth behind it.

Elsewhere there are rising moats, secret entrances, halls of mirrors that turn into deadly ovens. The Opera catacombs are booby trapped with all sorts of lady-or-the-tiger snafus, leading to the surreal sight of Raoul running through the hallways with one arm raised, like an extra in a Luis Bunuel short. The Phantom even turns out to be an adept snorkeler -- who knew?

We're lucky to have this print of ''Phantom" -- newly restored by Box5 Film -- and we're lucky to have the three fertile minds of the Alloy Orchestra banging their gongs, scraping their saws, and creeping along the keyboard in effortless synch with the film. They are Roger C. Miller, Ken Winokur, and Terry Donahue, and they create scores that simultaneously live in the 21st century and 80 years ago and that bring long-dead cinematic pleasures to life. Again, that's tonight only, at the Somerville Theatre. At $18 per it's a little steep, but some silents are golden.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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