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STUDIO Shout! Factory
RUNNING TIME 93 minutes
•Audio Commentary with Dwight H. Little and Robert Englund
• Behind the Mask: The Making of The Phantom of the Opera
• Theatrical Trailer
“Boy, I sure love how stuffy and pretentious The Phantom of the Opera adaptations are, I just wish they could also be trashy and ultra-violent.”
Jill Schoelen, Robert Englund, Alex Hyde-White, Billy Nighy, Molly Shannon
An aspiring opera singer finds herself transported back to Victorian-era London — and into the arms of a reclusive, disfigured maestro determined to maker here a star. The silver-throated Christine enjoys success through the arrangements of her new lover… until she realizes that he has been committing unspeakably grisly murders in her honer and won’t stop until he’s completed his masterpiece… in blood!
There are certain topics that pop culture likes to revisit that just bore me to tears. I have a blind spot for Jack the Ripper, Robin Hood (when not a cartoon fox or a man in tights), benevolent aliens (I have never remained awake for all of E.T. I assume it ends with a xenomorph bursting out of Elliot’s chest), and The Phantom of the Opera. I don’t dislike the story much, Gaston Leroux’s novel is a decent if fairly unremarkable yarn, but I absolutely despise what it has become. This is to say, I hate that The Phantom of the Opera is a musical now.
I don’t have anything against musicals per se (I enjoy Blues Brothers, Streets of Fire, Dr. Horrible, Rock & Rule, Repo! The Genetic Opera, Crybaby, and Phantom of the Paradise) and I even enjoy musicals based on non-musical stories (Little Shop of Horrors, Reefer Madness, and Evil Dead are all quite enjoyable. One of my pop-culture white whales is a stage musical of Peter Jackson’s Braindead/Dead-Alive that was reputed to be so bloody that a curtain had to be hung between the stage and the audience for the play’s climax.) The problem with The Phantom of the Opera, as it is with many things, is Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Webber’s stage play of Gaston Leroux’s novel has invaded the popular culture as what amounts to the “official” version of the story in much the same way that the musical versions of The Wizard of Oz and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street have over-ridden their respective source materials. I despise Webber’s musical and the 2004 film that was based on it and how it has flavored every adaptation since.
Well there was one adaptation of the novel which came after Webber’s awful musical, in fact 1989’s adaptation starring Robert Englund seems to have been released specifically to capitalize on the show’s popularity (as well as buoy Englund’s career.) The Phantom of the Opera keeps the subject matter closer to the novel while making it a lot more Penny Dreadful-like than it was originally.
We start out in New York City in the 80s as our lead character Christine finds a copy of a rare composition called Don Juan Triumphant written by a mysterious composer named Erik Destler. She goes to an audition and is knocked over by a falling sandbag, when she wakes up she is an opera singer in Victorian-era London auditioning for a role in Faust. She is helped along by a secret admirer that helps her to become the star of the show, that admirer is none other than The Phantom.
Things play out largely as usual here with courtship, underground piano halls, murder most foul, and a shadowy figure with a fucked-up face. Where this version differs from its predecessors and descendants is in the titular character himself and his utter lack of subtelty and nuance. The Phantom’s trademark mask has been replaced with strips of skin which he sews to his disfigured face to look normal… ish. Where does he get this skin? Why by flaying his victims alive, of course, as he does a clumsy stagehand at the beginning.
In this version of the story, The Phantom is revealed to be none other than — you guessed it — Frank Stallone. He’s Erik Destler, obviously, and the reason he’s all fucked up and weird is that he made a deal with the devil to sell his soul in exchange for his music to be remembered forever. The catch to this deal is that the devil renders Destler disfigured so his music will forever be his only likeable quality. When he’s not creeping on Christine or putting drunken crewmen in their place with Freddy Kreuger-esque dad jokes (“You’re suspended,” he says as he drops a man from the catwalk with a rope tied around him) he goes into town and solicits prostitutes and fights off gangs of period-appropriate ruffians in a scene that appears to have come straight out of Darkman.
To say that the tone of this piece is all over the place would be a massive understatement. The Phantom himself comes off as a dangerous psychopath, a misunderstood genius, or a gallant anti-hero depending on the scene and the gratuitously gory ways in which he dispatches his victims is very much at odds with the sophisticated and artsy look and feel of the movie.
On one hand this may be Englund’s most technically proficient role, but on the other he descends into camp anytime the movie tries to get too serious and even the movie’s cover depicts the man in Freddy make-up (while The Phantom sans skin grafts looks reasonably similar to Freddy, it is unquestionably Freddy Krueger’s face being displayed on the cover) with the statement “Robert Englund was ‘Freddy.’ Now he’s The Phantom of the Opera! An all new nightmare!” It’s no wonder this movie wasn’t more popular, the only people who are going to eat into that bullshit marketing are fans of the Nightmare series, and they’re likely just going to be bored by the film.
Against all campy odds, Phantom does manage to be a very well-directed movie with an atmosphere so good that it makes you forget that The Phantom looks like The Shadow and is silly as hell, conceptually. Even when the movie descends into outright hokum in the third act, one can’t help but admire how pretty it looks doing so.
There are other problems with the character of Christine. She has deja vu in regards to Erik Destler’s name even though he is literally unknown in the present day of the film. After the time jump she doesn’t appear to realize she’s an 1980s stage performer and acts as the period-appropriate version of the character, yet she knows the words to Don Juan Triumphant even though only the future version of herself has even heard of it. This makes even less sense when she wakes back up in “the present” for a final confrontation with The Phantom, who of course remembers everything. The ending scene also belongs in a much stupider movie and features chiptunes.
If anything it’s the attempts at making something deeper than a slasher movie that are the real surprise here. The Phantom of the Opera is one of Menahem Golan’s first productions after the collapse of Cannon films and the man wasn’t exactly known for making arthouse movies. And it’s Golan’s touch that makes this, like so many other movies he was involved with, a beautiful mess to observe. It’s all over the place but considering it’s a Golan film, starring Robert Englund, and directed by the man who did Free Willy 2 and Halloween 4, it really is pretty well done.
If you’re a fan of the more romantic aspects of The Phantom of the Opera then this movie isn’t for you. If you want a true-to-the-book adaptation, then this movie isn’t for you. If you want to watch that iconic bit where the chandelier falls, this movie isn’t for you. But if you want to see what it looks like when Robert Englund actually tries and if you want to see a darker if albeit cheesier take on the source material then you should give this a spin.
Special features are pretty sparse but we do get an audio commentary with the director and Robert Englund. There’s also a ton of interviews with just about everyone involved with the film and a theatrical trailer. Unfortunately this is not a “special edition” from Shout!, so you have no alternative but to put up with the abysmal “Freddy Krueger is The Phantom” one-sheet.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars