Terrifying Tuesday: The Phantom of the Opera (1989)
The standard array of monsters that come to mind, Frankenstein's Monster, Dracula, Wolfman, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon, are all products of the supernatural, but there is one superstar classic horror character missing, The Phantom. Over the years The Phantom has gone though a ton of changes from the novel to pig faced Lon Chaney, the half masked Claude Rains, the death mask of Herbert Lom, and the suaveness of Julian Sands. He's been to the mall, to the park with KISS, and to paradise. He's been on Broadway, and then translated back to the screen again. Yet though all these changes at the heart of the character he's a man. Perhaps a man who kills, who obsesses beyond a regular nature, whose love knows no bounds for the dulcet tones of his beloved Christine, but a man never the less. I think this is why he is one of the most interesting figures among the classic horror "monsters", and one that will no doubt see many incarnations for years to come.
Tonight I am happy to be bringing to you one of my favorite versions of The Phantom. Although in this film, he definitely comes from a more supernatural bent; he never the less is a relatable and still ultimately tragic figure. Oh, and it also stars a man who every horror fan is familiar with. Moonies, I give you the flick that could have been called Freddy Gets Cultured, but instead it stuck with the classic....
The Phantom of the Opera (1989) starring Robert England, Jill Schoelen, Alex Hyde-White, Bill Nighy, Terence Harvey, Nathan Lewis, and Molly Shannon.Directed by Dwight H. Little.
The story opens in modern times as Christine Daae (Schoelen) receives a folio of a forgotten opera from her friend Mae (Shannon). As she peruses the pages that seem eerily familiar, she has a vision of them seeping blood. Still she uses the aria from Don Juan Triumphant as an audition piece, but while singing it she gets knocked out by a falling sandbag.
She wakes on the opera stage, but now she is in Victorian England and is just waking from a sandbag falling on her. She is the first American to perform with the London opera as is the understudy to the Diva, La Carlotta. She receives nightly lessons from "her angel" who's strict instructions are honing her into a better singer. Little does she know that her "angel" is none other then the legendary Phantom also known as Erik Dresler (England). Dresler lives deep under the sewers of the opera house and plots to see Christine star in their production of Faust. The opera must hold a special meaning to him as he has made a deal with the devil himself. In exchange for making his music legendary, the devil scars his face into a hideous form. Erik has take to killing people and skinning them to use the flesh to cover his deformity.
This is exactly what he does to the stagehand who had accidentally dropped the sandbag on Christine, and then the man had the nerve to blame The Phantom. Erik skins the man and hides him in La Carlotta's room. When the Diva finds the body she is so traumatized that she cannot go on, and Christine has her lead role. Erik will stop at nothing to have the two things that he holds most dear, music and Christine, all for himself. He must vie for her affections with her suitor Richard (Hyde-White) and foil the investigation of Inspector Hawkins (Harvey) and his partner Davies (Lewis), but as he says "Only love and music are forever."
--A sequel called The Phantom of New York was planned but never shot. Some say that the England vehicle Dance Macabre (1991) was made using the upshot script, but this rumor has been refuted.
--Molly Shannon of SNL fame made her screen debut in this film.
--Unlike most versions of The Phantom there is no falling chandelier scene. However the film is the first since the 1925 version to feature The Phantom dressed as Red Death during the Masquerade Ball sequence.
--Robert England was very unhappy with the studio for Freddy-ing up the movie poster which features a level of scarring on The Phantom not present in the film.
The Bug Speaks
I'm a fan of monsters being just that. I have never been interested in the romantic notions of vampires or the like, and seeing The Phantom portrayed here in a more bloodthirsty manner is a refreshing change. After all the Andrew Lloyd Weber play had opened in 1986 only three years prior, and The Phantom had become a romantic figure full of mystery and love. To me that is not the character portrayed in Gaston Leroux's novel. While the Robert England version goes well off the reservation with changes (more on that later), Leroux's character was a mad man who was psychotically obsessed with Christine. We see more of that in this version than perhaps any other.
As far as the changes, well, there's plenty of them. The Phantom predilection to skin his victims is probably the chief among them. However the scenes where he sews skin onto himself to form a face number as some of the best in the flick. Also the film takes place in London instead of the usual Paris setting, and then there are the deplorable modern bookends to the story. The beginning works well enough for a setup and it is thankfully very brief. Once you've gotten over the "hey that's Molly Shannon" moment then it's over. The ending however is entirely too long, and has the suspicious smell of the hopes for a franchise. Overall though the changes seem to remain in the vein of the book (and other adaptations), but give the film a harder edge to it.
England performs very well as The Phantom, but by very well you need to take into account that this is Robert England I'm talking about. Although the performance is restrained as compared to the wide open zaniness of old Fred Kruger, England still manages to make The Phantom gleefully over the top. He is given a number of one liners that you can just tell he relishes delivering. My favorite and the most cheesy is when a woman at the costume party inquires what she will say when she sees his face. The Phantom leans in and growls, "You'll just die." Cheesy and cheap. Yep! But who the hell cares it's fun.
The whole cast is enjoyable. It's fun to see Bill Nighy as a much younger man, and the performance of Terence Harvey as the Inspector I really liked. Also very good is Nathan Lewis as Davies, the goonish partner to the Inspector. I found him very interesting to watch every time he came on the screen. If anyone was unimpressive, it was Jill Schoelen as Christine. She fell flat many times,and honestly she was not striking enough physically or emotionally to make me feel like it couldn't have been any number of actresses in the same role.
Director Dwight H. Little was just coming off Halloween IV:The Return of Michael Myers when he made this film, and I think it at least equals that submission into the genre. (Incidentally Little is directing 2009's Tekken film.) The movie has a solid look overall with some nice moody pieces, but it never really moves beyond standard fare.
Overall this is a film that I was quite pleased to rewatch. I was sure my memories of it were clouded by my adolescent adoration of Mr. England and all things slasheriffic. What I found was a movie that was a decent retelling of a classic tale that brings in elements of violence and fear that other versions have glossed over. I consider this a very underrated film probably stemming from England's involvement, but I would encourage you folks out there to give this one a chance. It's not a certifiable classic, but it comes pretty close.