The Phantom of the Opera (1989)

The Phantom of the Opera, from 1989, is a horror/slasher entry in Phantom adaptations, directed by Dwight H. Little. It’s the antithesis (and to some, antidote) to the treacly, overly romanticized Lloyd-Webber musical. It also piggybacks on the success of said musical, as well as its star Robert Englund’s most famous role, Freddy Krueger.

The movie starts in present day New York. Julliard student Christine Day is auditioning for a part in a new show, singing a piece from a forgotten opera written by an obscure composer. She’s barely finished the first verse when an errant sandbag knocks her unconscious. What occurs next is generally referred to as the time travel element, but I read it more as Christine recalling, or even somehow psychically revisiting, a past life. Regardless of which theory is correct, it allows the movie to move into the past, 1880’s London to be exact (switched from Paris). From this point on, the movie hits the basic Leroux story plot points. A promising young singer is mentored by the mysterious, musical genius living in the cellars of the opera house, who has obsessively fallen in love with her. Although Christine has a love interest, the romance isn’t a major element, and it doesn’t need to be. It’s enough to know they have a relationship.

The phantom is one Erik Destler, disfigured genius, who has no qualms about killing anyone who angers him. He’s resourceful, too, usually flaying his victims and using their skin to cover his hideous face. These perfectly grisly murders are being investigated by the police, and, bit by bit, the inspector assigned to the cases begins to figure things out. Eventually, Erik abducts Christine and descends to his lair, with the good guys in hot pursuit. Erik goes completely off the deep end and Christine realizes he’s mad. A dramatic showdown with the heroes ensues, people die and……we switch back to the present day. Christine revives, much to everyone’s relief, and is told by the producer she’s landed the role in the show. The producer looks a lot like Erik. She accepts his invitation to go to his place for a drink and — I won’t spoil the end.

The acting is good overall (no one makes me cringe) and Robert Englund, in the title role, makes for an enjoyable phantom. Not saddled with the naivety that can often occur with the character, Jill Schoelen is an attractive and intelligent Christine. Alex Hyde-White is serviceable as her love intereste, Richard, and Terence Harvey is solid as the lead investigator. Watch for Bill Nighy, relatively unknown at the time, in a supporting role as the opera house owner. The sets and costumes are equally good, as is the cinematography. Murkiness and post-production saturation and tinting has become the norm, but it’s absent in this movie, which is a point in its favor. The movie has its gory moments, but doesn’t feel gratuitous and ugly like modern horror flicks, and the effects are practical.

As in the novel, Erik goes out and about and interacts with people. Several events from the book are included, like the cemetery violin scene, the rat catcher, and Gounod’s Faust. Even when the movie deviates from the source material, I can’t complain. A point of contention for some is a scene involving Erik and a prostitute (perhaps intended to tie in with the Ripper murders). Minor spoiler; a brief flashback reveals that at some point in his past, Erik was quite familiar with ladies of ill-fame; he worked in a brothel playing piano. It was there that he unwittingly sold his soul for fame and paid a horrible price. This backstory occurs as a memory while Erik watches a performance of Faust, specifically, the scene in which the title character makes a pact with Mephistopheles. A nice touch.

The movie boasts a beautiful score, composed by Misha Segal, the most memorable piece being Don Juan Triumphant. The aria is heard a number of times, but in different ways, which evokes a different mood each time. During the graveyard scene, played on violin, it’s absolutely haunting.

The movie isn’t perfect, and it’s budget constraints shows at times, most notably during the bal masque. What should come across as the grandest of grand affairs seems small and a tad too intimate, more like a salon soiree in a private mansion. The rat catcher’s rat mask, however, is a nice bit of visual humor. Unfortunately, the make-up is a little too reminiscent of Nightmare on Elm Street’s Fred Krueger (done by Kevin Yagher, who worked with Englund on several of the Nightmare films), and I didn’t much care for the Freddy Kruegeresque puns (though, thankfully, they are few). I also couldn’t shake the feeling that the film makers were familiar with Brian de Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise; there are a couple of moments very reminiscent of that adaptation of the Phantom story.

Overall, I like this movie. And for those with a liking of ‘80’s horror, and/or a psychotic Erik, I recommend this underrated entry. It’s a must for Englund fans.

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