Beyond the Slimy Wall: Phantom of the Opera
By Stephanie Star Smith
June 17, 2005
We here at BOP are an eclectic group, and our tastes in movies run from the serious cinephiles to the foreign-film aficionados to niche film lovers. Thus was born the idea for this weekly column, devoted to horror films of all shapes and sizes, but concentrating on those B- and C-grade films that mainstream reviewers disdain, but are the bread-and-butter of every spook movie lover's viewing. So come with me as we venture beyond the slimy wall, uncovering the treasures - and burying the time-wasting bombs - that await those who dare to love the scare.
The Phantom of the Opera
Poor Robert Englund.
You know, Hollywood really likes to pigeonhole actors. You've got your romantic leads, your action heroes, your comics, your ingenues of both sexes, and your screwed-up face guys.
A category which seems to belong exclusively to Robert Englund.
Which in one way is pretty great, because Englund works as much as probably any little actor's heart would desire, but one has to wonder if any self-esteem issues ever reared their ugly heads - pardon the pun - when he kept getting called for the messed-up face parts. Although to be completely fair to Mr Englund, he's really not a bad-looking fellow without all that latex on his face. But when the role that brought you to prominence involved looking like a three-week-old corpse that maybe cremation had started on before someone changed his/her mind and decided burial would be best, I guess that's where Hollywood slots you in the casting hierarchy.
Not that breathing life into Freddy Krueger isn't something to be extremely proud of, and it does seem as if Englund thoroughly enjoys his little niche market, but sometimes it does give the humble viewer pause.
All of which is my way of leading into this week's film, which was released in theatres as Gaston Leroux's Phantom of the Opera, apparently on the belief by the marketing folks that audiences might get confused and think they were queuing up to watch that other Phantom where lots more singing and lots less dying takes place. Which is pretty weird for a couple reasons; not only wouldn't one think there'd be a whole lot of crossover between the two audiences, but that other Phantom was also called Gaston Leroux's Phantom of the Opera, thus erasing any hoped-for distinction between the two. As if that weren't enough, there's the other little fact the Promo Monkeys apparently overlooked, that one was very definitely a stage play and the other was a feature film (talks about bringing that other Phantom to the big screen hadn't even begun when this film was released). But Promo Monkeys seem to think audiences are as stupid as they, so a lot of lowest-common-denominator advertising happens; thus, we get two Gaston Leroux's Phantom of the Operas. Still, someone must have pointed out eventually that Lloyd Weber's creation also went by the Gaston Leroux prefix, because Englund's version gained an additional alias in the form of a suffix: Phantom of the Opera: The Motion Picture. And now that that other Phantom has also become a film...well, I don't think the poor marquee - not to mention my head - can take any more subtitles and supertitles and prefixes and suffixes, so let's let the Promo Monkeys wrestle with that one whilst we move on to better topics.
For this version, the Phantom isn't a poor musician whose life's work was stolen by another composer and who was disfigured by acid, but a poor musician whose face is disfigured when he makes a deal with the Devil to have his music loved by the whole world. And instead of haunting the Paris opera house and only killing those who stood in the way of his beloved Christine singing his music, this Phantom haunts a London opera house and kills...well, just about anyone who displeases or otherwise runs afoul of him. And instead of wearing a mask to cover his decidedly Freddy Krueger-esque disfigurement - at least that's this film's take on it - he takes skin from his murder victims and sews it on to give himself a more normal-seeming face. Normal-seeming, that is, unless you see him, say, in the light.
But what really sets this Phantom apart from the 4,732 other filmed versions - including the one of that musical the Promo Monkeys were afraid we'd confuse this film with - is the way in which the story is told. We start in the 20th century, and meet an aspiring soprano, naturally named Christine Day, who is looking for an unusual song to sing when she auditions for a show. Her friend and accompanist finds the score to a little-known opera called Don Juan Triumphant, written by Erik Destler. We hear how Destler was more notorious for the things he did than his music, blah, blah, bliddy-blah, set-up is complete. As Christine is singing the selection at her audition, she's accidentally hit by a sandbag, and falling unconscious takes us into the past and to 19th-century London for the rest of our tale, which then follows pretty closely to the original tale, save the exceptions mentioned above.
This film does resemble the musical in a couple of ways, mostly by using imagery from the masquerade ball in Lon Chaney's classic silent film of the story and having Christine think of the Phantom as an angel sent by her father to make her a better singer and advance her career. We do skip the falling chandelier bit, though, and there are some very nice touches, including a bit of a twist at the end, which give this film originality without losing too much of the Phantom's storyline.
The cast is very good, from Englund right down through the bit players, and the killings are actually pretty fun, standard-issue slasher variety though they may be. The original music is quite enchanting as well, although I'd bet real money that the actress playing Christine did not do her own singing. But what makes this film really satisfying is the conceit that brackets the telling of Erik the Phantom's unrequited love for his Christine, and the excellent performance by Englund in the eponymous role.
The Phantom of the Opera's just-over-90 minutes is a nice bit of spook-movie fun that definitely deserves a place on your rental list or to capture with your TiVo.
I see by the shadows falling from my bust of Pallas that our time is up. Until next time, then, when we will once again venture Beyond the Slimy Wall.