THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA
(Special Edition Blu-Ray Review)
There was that magical time in the late 1980’s when mom and pop video stores were all the rage. Large chain video stores like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video were still a few years away from putting the small local video stores out of business. I mention this because the first time I saw The Phantom of the Opera with Robert (A Nightmare on Elm Street) Englund and directed by Dwight H. (Halloween 4, Marked for Death) Little, I had rented it from a store in my hometown of Wrightsville, Pa called Silver Screen Video.
Back in those days, 1989 -90 (I believe) it wasn’t uncommon for a video store to only have one copy of a movie – shocking to our modern day world were almost everything is right at our fingertips. So, when a new movie came out, one wanted to jump on it as fast as they could in order to have it at home on a Friday after school – I was such a kid. I remember coming home that Friday afternoon, it had been a rainy, dreary day; I knew that Phantom of the Opera was out on VHS that week as I was a savvy movie kid even when I was nine or ten. I was sitting at the table doing homework and I said something to my mom about going to rent it at Silver Screen Video that night – and maybe getting pizza too, because what Friday night fright fest is complete without a good pizza to go with your gore? She said she would call and see if they had it in. Lucky for me, they did!
The Phantom of the Opera (the version we are talking about today) isn’t like the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical or the Lon Chaney Sr. (1925) version, or any version captured on film really. Shocking as it may sound, but this Phantom of The Opera is more akin to Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel, Le Fantôme de l'Opéra mixed with a touch of the Hammer Films from the 60’s and 70’s.
The movie starts out in 1989 Manhattan with Christine Day (Jill Schoelen, The Stepfather, Popcorn) searching for a unique piece to sing at her next audition. Her manager/friend, Meg (played by a very young, and then unknown Molly Shannon, Superstar, SNL) discovers an opera piece called Don Juan Triumphant, written by a composer named Erik Destler. While at the audition and singing the mysterious piece, Christine is struck by a falling sandbag that knocks her unconscious. When she awakens she is in 1881 London, wearing opera clothes and a different version of Meg is there. Christine, as it turns out, is the understudy of the diva, La Carlotta, who is both jealous and resentful of Christine’s talents. But from the shadows of the Opera House the Phantom/Erik Destler (Robert Englund) is watching, lurking, and he is going to seek revenge on Joseph who caused Christine (his love, his muse) harm by the falling sandbag. In a violent, gory death, Destler disembowels the man, and then skins him to collect his skin.
There are several differences from Leroux’s novel right off the bat. One: there is no modern-day New York in the novel, or flashing back to another time period. Two: this version takes place in 1881 London and not in Paris. The London setting helps give us that eerily foggy vibe straight from a Hammer Film that could have starred Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing. Three: the Phantom does not wear a mask – well, sort of not. Instead, the Phantom sews flesh from his victims onto his horribly burnt face creating an almost handsome, yet botch plastic surgery look for himself. Honestly, Englund, when in full make-up is rather dashing as The Phantom and plays the character very well with kindness, obsessiveness, and viciousness that forces you to love and connect with him while hating him at the same time.
The Phantom of the Opera is more like the novel than the few differences I have pointed out above. The Phantom in this is dark, mysterious, and nasty – much like he is in the novel using the opera house to dispatch his victims. The Rat Catcher, who had been left out of all previous versions of the story, is in this version. And as the title suggests, there is Opera in the movie, but all of it serves a purpose to further the plot (written by Duke Sandefur) and not just to slip a piece of Opera in there for names sake – no more is this apparent and parallel to the book than when the Opera Faust is beautifully played out on screen.
After Carlotta discovers Joseph’s skinned body in her room, she loses her voice from screaming, forcing Christine to take over her part in Faust, which Destler, disguising himself as Christine’s dead father encouraged her to do. The scene is beautifully shot. It’s huge and operatic – no pun intended. The soft candle-like lighting makes you feel as if you are sitting in an 1881 opera house watching the play unfold right before your very eyes with hundreds of extras filling the seats. As Faust is going on, the Phantom slips into his box to watch as Christine is about to come on. While there, and listening to Faust, who is about to sell his soul to the Devil, we find out that Destler did that very same thing so his music would be as immortal as the classical composers such as Beethoven and Mozart – as I’ve said, the Opera in the movie is used very, very well to enhance the plot. This is another difference from the novel. In the novel, the Phantom is burned during a fire in the Opera House and lives in shame in the tunnels underneath. Here we find that since Destler sold his soul, the Devil’s touch has physically burned him, disfiguring him, alas giving this version of the film a more modern take than any of the previous versions. Christine and her boyfriend, Richard, (Alex Hyde-White) celebrate at dinner that night where she tells him about her mysterious teacher. Richard, jealous, wants to meet the mysterious man. At the same time, Destler is out walking the streets of London, looking for a woman of ill-repute who resembles Christine. This is another good scene with Englund showing the love and venerability of the character. He doesn’t want the prostitute to see his face, as he is ashamed, but he needs to be with flesh and beauty, to feel the touch of a woman, love, even if he’s paying for it. After that, Destler returns to a tavern where he writes his music in a secluded corner alone and pays for his drinks in gold. Three thugs catch wind of this, and after a small confrontation inside the bar, they follow Destler to a back alley to rob him.
The scene between the three thugs and Destler is rather gory, and ripe for that slasher time period of the 80’s when Jason and Freddy (along with every other slasher flick was being produced) were the rage. For the gore hounds, this is a great scene (no spoilers here) for people who love the original, they will hate it – you’ve been warned. The lighting and atmosphere in the scene are great. Director Little handles the scene with close detail and once more gives us the feel of a Hammer Film, and what London in 1881 might have felt like if one dared venture down a back alley at night.
The next morning Christine is given a bad review in the paper. Destler does not take this well and murders the reviewer (good thing for me, I’m giving this film a good review, PHEW!) in cold blood, but not before giving the man a chance to change his opinion of Christine’s performance in Faust. Broken-hearted from the bad review, Christine goes to her father’s gave, where Destler is waiting for her. He tells her to come with him and with his guidance he will make her a star. Once in Destler’s lair he confesses his love for her and places a ring on her finger making her his bride and warning her never to see another man. Englund shines in this part of the movie. He’s dashing, charismatic, and scary all at once. You want to fear him, but at the same time you feel for him too. You understand how much his music and his muse/love Christine mean to him and what he’d do to have both loves of his life coincide.
Now in fear of the Phantom, Christine attends a masquerade ball where she tells Richard about the Phantom. The Phantom, dressed as Red Death, becomes enraged and kills Carlotta. The masquerade ball is well shot and again lit in what looks like candlelight giving an authentic feel to it all. There are hundreds of masked extras in the scene and it plays out wonderfully to push us into the final act of the film when the Phantom kidnaps Christine and forces the police and Richard to risk going into the underground dwellings of the Phantom’s lair where the climax of the 1881 portion of the film closes.
Christine then wakes back up in 1989 New York only to find that she comes face to face with a living and breathing present-day Erik Destler now going by the name Forster. Thinking he was nothing more than part of her dream she comes back to his apartment after he told her she had gotten the lead in his play. There she discovers that he is indeed Destler, who because of his curse by the Devil, lives forever, unless his music is destroyed. After revealing Destler’s true face (in all its gory fashion) she stabs him and destroys his music, hence destroying his evil.
Or did she…
Out walking, she passes a solo violinist who begins to play Don Juan Triumphant to her. Is Destler really dead?
All in all the movie is a fun watch and a great adaptation of the source material, even if some of it was changed to fit the mood and style of the 1980’s. At times it does fall into that slasher film zone very heavily, but it doesn’t hurt the movie. In fact, it makes this telling of The Phantom of the Opera unique and really separates itself from any of the other versions that have come before or after it. There are times where Englund does fall back into the Freddy Krueger character that had made him so famous in the first place. Freddy had become such a part of Englund’s life at the time that he was having a hard time separating himself from his character – we are talking about a man who played Freddy at this point in five movies and forty-four episodes of the short-lived Freddy’s Nightmares TV series (88-90) – that he couldn’t help but throw a little of Freddy into the mix. Yet, with that said, Englund’s performance is very sound and solid as the tortured Destler.
Dwight H. Little’s direction is superb, and he handles the romance and beauty of the film with the horror and the gorier scenes seamlessly. The performance from all the supporting cast is solid too. From Bill Nighy (Pirates of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest) to Terrance Harvey as Inspector Hawkins everyone dives into their roles with guts and vigor. The only really wooden actor in the movie is Jill Schoelen who isn’t much of an actress and always has the same doe-eyed lost look for every movie she was in during the high point of her career in the 1980’s.
On Blu-Ray the film indeed looks great! The rich oily candlelight colors pop out of the screen and the deep dark reds look like they are on fire in HD 1080p. The atmosphere is thick with snow, and fog, and dark, with shadows and symbolism of life and death, of good and evil that make the movie a must for anyone who love 1980’s horror or Hammer Films, or even Italian films by the likes of Dario Argento – which all of them tend to be very operatic in nature. The sound in DTS allows you to fully engulf yourself in the music and soundtrack of the movie. The Special Edition Blu-Ray comes with a ton of extras including a Making of Documentary featuring most of the cast and some of the crew. And commentary by director Dwight H. Little and star Robert Englund – both of whom shed insight in to the production, stories, technical issues, and more fan-boy movie knowledge about a sequel that never happened but was written. Also there is a still gallery and trailer in the special features.
Eight out of Ten stars!
To pick up a copy go to: www.thecrimsonscreen.com