Movie Review - The Phantom of the Opera (1989)
For the guys in the #MutantFam, I’m happy to present the following: a date night horror movie.
Now, don’t worry, there’s no musical numbers…this isn’t the Phantom of the Opera via Andrew Lloyd Weber…I mean, yeah, there’s a little bit of opera here and there but it’s not a main feature of the film. Instead, what we have here is a fairly lavish period drama with horror elements and some very strong performances that make me wonder why this version of the story isn’t celebrated more.
For those of you who have somehow avoided any mention of the source material, here’s our synopsis: A fledgling opera singer with hopes of becoming a diva is getting help from a voice that she believes is an angel her late father has sent to her. But when this voice’s help has less to do with opera and more to do with murder, Christine is forced to confront the many horrific truths of her maleficent benefactor.
Based on Gaston Leroux’s 1909 story, again, I’m amazed that this version of The Phantom of the Opera isn’t talked about more. It truly defies expectations in some regards, most of those for the positive. As I mentioned in the lead-in, it’s incredibly lavish, especially when you take into account that it was produced by Menachem Golan, half of the classic Cannon Films, under his 21st Century banner. To give you some idea, this is the same guy/studio behind the painful 1990 version of Captain America. That this film was made only one year earlier, 1989, suggests how much Golan’s fortunes had turned in that span of time. One bit that likely saved some money in the budget was the fact that the sets used here in Phantom were from another film that had just finished production and had not been torn down yet. Thus, while this story typically takes place in Paris, here the events unfold in Victorian England. Still, the money saved appears to have been clearly used on the costumes and make-up effects provided by Kevin Yagher, who provided effects for Nightmare on Elm Street 2. This ends up being both a good and a bad thing as we’ll talk about in a little bit.
The best tangent to go on here are the horror alum that we find within. Of course, there’s the name on the marquee, Robert Englund, who really turns in a fantastic performance. He does his best to shed his best-known role, Freddy Krueger, and provide his Phantom with some depth so that the audience can feel some sympathy toward him at times. And yes, while he is indeed murderous, the fact that he is trapped within a Faustian bargain, and the pathos attached to that, Englund does a great job conveying. Helping him in this task is the aforementioned Yagher, who presents us with different faces for this Phantom, each of them reflecting where the character is mentally. When he’s trying to either help or woo Christine, the mask he wears is an exaggeration of Englund’s features, including a chin that would make Bruce Campbell proud. When he’s about doing his murderous work, however, the face he wears is a bit more Frankenstein-like, clearly stitched together from human skin. Then, lastly, when the monster is revealed, well, this is probably where it’s a bad thing to have a former Elm Street guy doing the effects, because our final reveal is probably a little too Freddy-like and, if you’ve been wrapped up in the film up to that point, can easily pull you out of it, reminding you of Englund’s far more successful franchise. Jill Schoelen does a great job of preventing the role of Christine from becoming too damsel in distress-ish or screamy and, by the end of the film, is able to save herself. While she did not perform any of the opera pieces herself, her performance lends well to the voice that was laid in overtop to provide the songs. That’s just as much to her credit as it is the sound editors, as there’s no point in the film where we’re led to believe the voice is anyone’s but hers. Heck, the only way I found out was by watching the making of documentary included on Shout Factory’s disc. Alex Hyde-White, a Roger Corman regular, gives a great performance as Christine’s fiancé Richard, who plays second-fiddle throughout the film and yet continues to feel like a vital character almost in spite of that.
While not on the acting side of things, this proves to be the second film from Dwight H. Little that I’ve really enjoyed…the first being Halloween 4: The Curse of Michael Myers. (We’ll have to talk about that one at some point!) The visuals make the film look more expensive than it likely was, the pacing was solid and overall the film created a world that I would have liked to have stayed in longer.
Lastly, a tip of the hat goes to Misha Segal for the film’s score that, again, feels more like it belongs in a proper period drama than it does in a horror film. Best of all, it makes no reference, intentional or otherwise, to the music from the Andrew Lloyd Weber production. I mean, yeah, sure, that would’ve opened up the production to legal issues (although probably would have also kicked up the film’s box office some by drawing in more of the fans of the musical) but I have to admit, I was thoroughly impressed that when watching the film at no point did I even think about the more popular musical accompaniment that is usually associated with this tale. Given the massive popularity of the musical’s soundtrack, that’s quite a feat indeed.
Like any movie though, not everything here is sunshine and roses. I did have some issues with parts of the script. First, yes, they did inject a couple of ‘Freddy-like’ one-liners which just simply don’t work here…not within this atmosphere and not within this story. I mean, they’re almost wince-worthy. Secondly, the framing story. You see, most of the movie takes place in a dream? Genetic flashback? I dunno…but Christine is actually a modern-day opera singer who, during an audition, is hit with a falling sandbag and is knocked unconscious…whisking her back into the Victorian London setting of the bulk of the film. To be fair, this was a bit of an ambitious move on the part of the filmmakers as these segments were to lead directly in to the sequel, which would take place in modern times as Christine would face off against the Phantom in Manhattan. While a script was written, it would never be produced given the lackluster response (both critically and at the box office) to this film. Lastly, the film suffers from an exposition dump right around the one-hour mark. In this scene, the police inspector following the path of the Phantom’s murders meets with Richard to explain how the police know that 1) he’s not a suspect and 2) that it’s the Phantom’s doing…and the police know who he is. This exchange violates one of the core tenets of cinema: show, don’t tell. Allowing this police investigation to be its own subplot in the film might have made for more gore and more for Terence Harvey (as Inspector Hawkins) to do. And, like I said before, the fact that I wanted to stay in this world during the film’s runtime, this subplot could’ve added an additional 15-30 minutes. I suspect the frugality of Menachem Golan came into play here though. After all, film costs money, as do make-up effects.
None of these things are deal-breakers though. Again, I can’t say it enough, this film really impressed me. I mean, I get why it probably didn’t do well…not gory enough for most horror hounds and nothing like the popular musical to be of any interest to the larger general audience. Additionally, it’s Robert Englund in something that’s not Freddy. But all of these things I feel are strengths: the horror elements are used when they’re appropriate and thus never cheapen the story. Given I have a general distaste for musicals, the fact that this film is not that can only be a plus in my book. Lastly, I tend to love it when actors that are typed as one thing break out and do something different, as is the case here. Englund’s well rounded performance alone is worth the price of admission, to be sure, but it’s how well all the other above mentioned factors blend together to create an immersive film experience make this version of Phantom of the Opera worthy of rediscovery and re-evaluation.
TLDR: While not perfect by any stretch, this underrated gem is carried largely by Englund's spectacular performance. Definitely worth rediscovery...and our Happy Cat rating!