BBFC Classification: 15
Director: Dwight H. Little
Starring: Robert Englund, Jill Schoelen, Bill Nighy, Alex Hyde-White, Stephanie Lawrence, Terence Harvey
Often overlooked amongst the plethora of movies based upon Gaston Leroux’s novel, this 1989 adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera was directed by Dwight H. Little (Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers) and is probably closer in tone to the novel than any of the numerous takes on the story available, including Universal’s immortal 1925 version starring Lon Chaney.
This version begins in modern day New York, where aspiring opera singer Christine Day (Jill Schoelen – Popcorn) is auditioning for a part with a piece composed by a mysterious 19th century composer named Erik Destler. As Christine sings the composition she is hit on the head by a falling sandbag and knocked unconscious, waking up in Victorian London where she is the understudy to La Carlotta (Stephanie Lawrence – Buster), the biggest opera star of the time. Christine is stalked by Erik Destler (Robert Englund – A Nightmare on Elm Street/Wishmaster), a talented but unsuccessful composer who sold his soul to the Devil in return for adulation for his music. His wish was granted but in return his face was scarred and disfigured, ensuring that his music is the only thing about him that people will love, forcing him to dwell in the caverns under the opera house where he cannot be seen.
As Erik becomes more obsessed with Christine things start to happen that force the young singer to take over the role of Marguerite from La Carlotta in a production of Faust, and Erik becomes even more determined to make Christine a star, resulting in the murder of anyone who gets in his way.
Not a remake of any earlier versions but a fresh take on the novel, this film was largely unappreciated at the time of its release and flopped at the box office, most likely due to the fact that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical was riding high in the public consciousness and this was seen as a derogatory slasher version of that production rather than the more-faithful-to-the-book take that it was. It is a very dark film, both visually and in tone, and there are some rather gruesome and bloody scenes that would no doubt have been a bit of a surprise for your average Lloyd Webber fan, but this film isn’t just about the gore as the story itself manages to hold your attention all the way through, helped by some pretty strong performances from the two leads. Naturally, Robert Englund is the real focal point and the biggest draw for horror fans and he doesn’t disappoint, bringing his A-game to a fairly demanding role that could have gone disastrously wrong if he had pitched it slightly differently which, considering the campy direction that the Elm Street films were taking, looks like it could have been an easy thing to do.
However, the film’s biggest strength is also one of its most obvious flaws and that is in the casting of Robert Englund as the Phantom, because every time he opens his mouth or makes a grimacing face you can’t help but compare Erik Destler to Freddy Krueger. Understandable, because in 1989 Englund was at the height of his fame as Freddy, having just come off the back of A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master – the most successful film of the franchise – and the Freddy’s Nightmares TV series, and anything he did was going to get compared to the razor-fingered dream demon – you only have to look at the image on the DVD cover for Phantom… to see how this was obviously marketed towards Freddy fans – which was unfair towards the actor as he actually gives a proper performance in this film rather than going through the motions. Having him appear in burnt flesh make-up provided by Elm Street alumnus Kevin Yagher didn’t do much to curb the comparison but the scenes where Erik sows flesh onto his face or takes his grotesque make-up off are made all the better by Englund’s experience in dealing with such matters and give the film a grindhouse edge closer to one of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre films rather than the slicker Elm Street sequels.
Although the dark tone and some plot details – like having the Phantom as a composer and not a singer like in Lloyd Webber’s musical – are very faithful to Leroux’s novel, the makers do take a few liberties and change a few things. For instance, like the Universal film there is a masked ball scene with the Phantom wearing a red outfit and a skull mask but there is no falling chandelier, a key scene in Phantom folklore. Erik also makes frequent visits to protitutes, something that Lon Chaney’s Phantom never did. The music is quite spectacular, being at once both creepy and captivating, and capturing the essence of the Phantom legend just as much as the musical without ripping it off. The Victorian setting for the majority of the film is very atmospheric and the costumes lavish and convincing, and an early appearance by Bill Nighy (Sean of the Dead/Underworld) as the snobby co-owner of the theatre is quite fun and adds a little light-heartedness.
So if you’re one of those people who dismissed this film upon its initial release as a brainless slasher or just Freddy with a mask on then it’s probably about time you revisited it as it really is an entertaining film. Yes, it is flawed and some of the scenes look a little cheap and obviously filmed on a set but it wouldn’t be going too far out to suggest that this film would make a decent modern(ish) companion piece to some of the Roger Corman/Vincent Price films of the 1960s. The Blu-ray transfer is quite tidy, although there are some grainy scenes in the first half of the film that are made all the more noticeable by the cleaner picture in the second, but overall this is a film that deserves a reappraisal as it really is quite good.
Special Features: None
UK Release Date: 21st April 2014