Freddy’s Phantom of the Opera a Mixed Bag
By Kristin Battestella
The 1989 version of The Phantom of the Opera adds a whole lot of gory to update the oft-adapted novel. Unfortunately, the convoluted changes to the source sully what could be a fine macabre rendition, leaving more crossed signals than scares.
New York singer Christine Day (Jill Schoelen) finds herself upon the stage of a past London opera house after discovering a lost Don Juan Triumphant manuscript by alleged murderer and composer Erik Destler (Robert Englund). Erik has paid a disfiguring Faustian price to have his music heard – the devil has scarred his face and now the Opera Ghost must use the flesh of his victims to mask his horrendous wounds. When he hears Christine sing, however, The Phantom seeks to dispose of diva La Carlotta (Stephanie Lawrence) and replace her with his muse. Will Christine come to love her musical benefactor or discover his murderous hobbies?
Director Dwight H. Little (Rapid Fire) starts this Leroux adaptation from writers Gerry O’Hara (Ten Little Indians) and Duke Sandefur (Dark Justice) with a satanic warning, ominous music, a creepy bookshop, bloody manuscripts, and then contemporary New York opera auditions before a Victorian London transition. Unfortunately, the framing added to The Phantom of the Opera is more than confusing. Is it reincarnation, time travel, or immortality? Are we watching a flashback induced by some demonic spell when Erik’s music is played? Memories from The Phantom’s point of view recalling his devilish pact further muddle this twist. Though Faust elements from the novel and scenes or characters not often included in onscreen adaptations are represented, purists will wonder why these frustrating bookends and superfluous changes were shoehorned in here. Thankfully, the murderous opera mishaps and quick pace move for the 93-minute duration – the tale remains familiar enough and there’s no time to fully question the additions or the unnecessary endings that just keep on going forever. Evil elements, plenty of brutality, and some supernatural hocus-pocus make for a decidedly horror mood. We’ve know doubt that this angle will be sinister, not romantic, and many Phantom fans will enjoy the outright villainous tone even if the execution of the inserted spooky is laden with plot holes and flaws. Ironically, despite its gory strides and fiendish aspects, The Phantom of the Opera is clearly trying to ride the coattails of the musical productions and includes a disclaimer declaring that this version is unaffiliated with Webber and company. Go figure.
Fortunately, the gruesome Phantom skin and make up designs for star Robert Englund work devilishly good. He stitches up his icky face, harvests fresh flesh from his victims, and remains strong and skilled with weapons as he slices and dices. For all its misguided vision, this Phantom of the Opera is not afraid to bloody it up and out rightly mention sexual context – be it accusing peeping tom stagehands, some nighttime prostitution, or would-be rapacious action. Erik has his needs! Through his Faust pact and filleting folks, The Phantom maneuvers diva Carlotta’s exit early before going out to the local pub or spa for some more kills. His interest in Christine, however, feels secondary, lame, and tacked on to the demonic upkeep as if elevating the full on, killer creeper is meant to make us forget the obsessive love plot. Compared to what usually is the source of Erik’s motivation, this Opera Ghost doesn’t have much reason to hang around the house when he could be getting his lust and hellish tendencies elsewhere. Broadway shade, crammed in horror – the lengthy skin peel reveals help The Phantom of the Opera doubly cash in on Englund’s Nightmare on Elm Street heights as well as the musicals. This Erik is obviously not a sympathetic soul, but he’s not a multi dimensional villain either. He’s The Phantom and he’s bad this time around, oooo. The would-be menacing spectacle doesn’t do Englund justice or give him the layers and depths he is more than capable of delivering.
Poor Billy Nighy (Underworld) is also totally wasted in The Phantom of the Opera as an angry, would-be manipulative but largely ineffective opera owner. He doesn’t have much to do except bitch, and late stage star Stephanie Lawrence as Carlotta likewise feels blink and you miss her rather than any sort of antagonist. So-called inspectors and other nondescript secondary players are forgettable, as-needed plot devices or set dressings. Without much beyond the Raoul name change for Alex Hyde-White (Reed Richards in the infamous 1994 Fantastic Four film) as Christine’s barely there paramour Richard, it’s tough to follow his supposed heroics in the hectic underground finale much less root for his success. Sadly, all of these players could be excised – no name police could have been called to the opera house for the shoot ‘em up showdown and The Phantom of the Opera would have been no different. Critical in the role as Christine Day, Jill Schoelen (There Goes My Baby) also misses the mark if you are looking for a strong period piece blossom. While she makes a capable eighties scream queen, Schoelen is a fish out of water at the opera. Christine should do more than go round and round with Erik in one slow motion battle after another, right? But say hey, its SNL alum Molly Shannon!
There is a new blu-ray edition of The Phantom of the Opera, which is nice since the bare bones DVD has subtitles but tough to see alleyways and dark fight scenes. Again, the head rolling gore is well done, but some of the violence also feels unnecessary compared to the atmospheric blue lighting, red reflections, and flaming effects. Askew angles, the tilted hat, and shadowed, one eye close ups of The Phantom also up the brooding. There is little of the actual stage spectacle here, but the Victorian interiors and layers of Old World feel intimate. As horror, this production design is more than serviceable even if it’s not all it could have been. The subdued palette, generic costumes, and low budget mistakes, however, won’t be as grandiose as some Phantom of the Opera fans may expect – Erik’s lair looks like a standard, commonplace cave set with some candles. Perhaps that’s realistic to what the underground living would be, but there isn’t enough to it for a film. Fortunately, the scoring provides the right gothic mood and melody. Sure, it’s not quite sweeping and will seem knock off inferior to the more famous Phantom musics, but it is the one part of this conflicted Phantom of the Opera that does what it is supposed to do. And oh my, shout out for the floppy discs and giant computer monitors!
The Phantom of the Opera suffers from its identity crisis as a horror film and a book adaptation just as it much as it proves a scary update of Leroux is possible. Had it abandoned the contemporary twists and devilish ties and simply played it straight while upping the sinister and gore, The Phantom of the Opera might have stood out from the crowd as more than a cliché Freddy or Webber cash in like those try hard, faux rip offs we get today. At times, this rendition feels like a bad edit, the audience test viewing that’s missing all its final bells and whistles. Are we still awaiting the real director’s cut with all the polish, clarification, and panache? The Phantom of the Opera is not the definitive adaptation of the novel, and ultimately, nor is it the best macabre rendition – I’m not sure anyone will ever surpass the Silent version in that regard. Mixed bag though it is, if spooky audiences, Phantom students, and Englund fans accept this late night tale for what it is, The Phantom of the Opera can be a fun, serviceable, gruesome good time – complete with the heads of divas in the punch bowl.