TITLE: The Phantom Of The Opera
YEAR RELEASED: 1989
DIRECTOR: Dwight H. Little
CAST: Robert Englund, Jill Schoelen, Bill Nighy, Alex Hyde-White, Stephanie Lawrence
RICHARD PHILLIPS-JONES on a curious Brit-Gothic/US Slasher hybrid starring Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund!
When falling victim to an accident at an audition, an aspiring opera singer finds herself transported from 1989 New York to 1881 London. She awakens to find that she is the understudy to the leading performer at the London Opera House, and that none other than The Phantom Of The Opera is her greatest admirer, determined to stop at nothing to get his idol to the top of her profession…
What do you get when you cross an 80’s American slasher with classic Brit-horror? The answer is provided by this pleasing hybrid, and one which had a troubled gestation.
The original screenplay by Gerry O’Hara (The Avengers, The Professionals among others) transplanted the classic tale’s setting from Paris to London. Originally planned as a British Cannon production to be directed by John Hough (Twins Of Evil, The Legend Of Hell House) and produced by Harry Alan Towers (The Bloody Judge (1970), the Fu Manchu series), the studio no doubt hoped to capitalise on the publicity generated by the Lloyd Webber musical adaptation.
When Cannon got into severe financial difficulties, producer Menahem Golan took the project to his new outfit, 21st Century Film Corp. The director’s chair was filled by Dwight H. Little (Halloween IV), but the London setting was retained, with Hungary’s streets providing a suitably atmospheric substitute for the exteriors, whilst bookends set in present-day New York added a contemporary element.
Hot from his successes as Freddy Krueger, professed anglophile Robert Englund was given the opportunity to do something different on-screen. Using his classical acting background and making a most effective Phantom, he adopts the novel (and gruesome) technique of flaying his victims, then using their skin to mask his own disfigured features. Jill Schoelen (another 80’s horror favourite, as Christine) completes the main US contingent, whilst the rest of the main cast is resolutely British, populated by some reliable and familiar faces.
The adaptation takes a few narrative liberties with its source, yet in other respects is refreshingly faithful. Whilst most versions have featured freshly commissioned opera-style pieces, in this case Gounod’s opera Faust is heavily featured, referring nicely to the added twist of Englund’s Phantom having become disfigured as the result of a pact with the Devil.
Especially pleasing is the ballroom scene, which apes the look and feel of the 1925 silent classic version by accentuating the reds and greens of the early two-strip Technicolor process, and dressing Englund in a costume very similar to Lon Chaney’s. And yet, the sequence also breaks with the norm in not featuring a falling chandelier. This may well have been for budgetary reasons, but actually works well in challenging audience expectations, as does the killing of characters who survive in the original tale.
Hated by the critics (wags referred to the film as Freddy: The Musical), the film opened promisingly but suffered a rapid decline at the box office. Still, time has been kind to this particular outing for Gaston Leroux’s creation.
Flawed? Undoubtedly. The head-on collision between 80’s slasher touches and Brit-Gothic conventions doesn’t always gel, but the film’s sheer ambition in taking such a classical approach in the face of then-current horror movie trends is to be applauded. It certainly stands out visually from many of its contemporaries, and it might be considered somewhat ahead of its time. Just compare its approach with that of Ripper Street or Penny Dreadful.
Perhaps best of all, there’s no sign of Andrew Lloyd Webber.
TRIVIA POINT : A sequel, The Phantom Of New York, was mooted but never saw the light of day.