History Makes Movies Better

There are 365 days in a normal non-freaky-leap year. Each of those days marks the anniversary of all sorts of crazy shit. Some of that crazy shit has been made into movies.

September 23

69 years ago today the first gas chamber experiments were conducted at Auschwitz, the infamous concentration/extermination camp in Nazi-annexed Poland. Two years after that, the slightly less famous but equally infamous Salò Republic, a Nazi puppet-state in northern Italy, was born. So, we could get into some dark, dark fucked up shit here, but…

32 years ago today an American hero named Carole Lee finally triumphed after nearly two days of labor and popped a wailing babe out into some doctor’s hands at the now defunct Midway Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota. Carole and her husband Rick, wanting their new son to have an unusual but not bizarre name, decided upon Joshua, then fairly obscure outside the Hebrew community, unaware that concurrently thousands of like-minded goyim across America were doing the same thing. And that handsome, ordinary-named fellow is now drinking some tasty beer and in a really good mood, so he doesn’t want to talk about people being gassed or forced to eat shit (we already have a piece doing that today!).

He wants to talk about horror movies!

It was 101 years ago today that the first section of Gaston Leroux’s serial Le Fantôme de l’Opéra was published in the French newspaper, Le Gaulois. The story, which ran until January 8, 1910, tells the story of Christine, a chorus girl at the Paris Opera House who is taken under the wing of a mysterious stranger she believes to be the Angel of Music (who her dying father had promised would one day visit her). The stranger is in fact Erik, a disfigured genius who lives in the bowels of the opera house and has been “haunting” the joint for years. Erik agrees to teach Christine to sing like a champ and make her a star. The fact that the Opera is putting on Faust is no thematic accident, as this bargain doesn’t lead to great places for Christine. Some people die, some gross faces are seen, some chandeliers fall.

Sadly, Leroux’s story never sold particularly well when it was published as a novel, but, on the upside, it found a welcome and fertile home in moving pictures for the next century.

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Wanting to follow up the success of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Universal needed another horror property in which star Lon Chaney could show off his crazy make-ups skills. Chaney would reward them with what is arguably his most iconic visage, revealed in a scene that in non-arguably one of the most iconic moments in film history. This silent classic is possibly the most faithful to Leroux’s novel of all the adaptations. The biggest change is to the film’s ending. In Leroux’s story Erik confesses that no one has ever kissed him before, so at the end Christine agrees to give him a smooch, then several weeks later she finds out he died from being overwhelmed with emotion. Oh, the French. Unsurprisingly, test audiences did not go for this ending, so Universal did some reshoots and decided the next best thing to dying of a broken heart is being beaten to death by an angry mob and thrown into a river. Released in 1925 the film was a hit, grossing a then awesome $2 million. In 1929, with sound being the new craze, Universal re-shot large chunks of the film with sync-sound, and looped all the actors’ dialogue, except Chaney’s (he was a little busy at this point with bronchial lung cancer, I think), who was instead given narration by an uncredited actor. This new version was also a hit, but alas, has since vanished from the Earth; only the soundtrack discs still exist.

Song at Midnight (1937)
Generally regarded as the first Chinese horror film, Ma-Xu Weibang’s film follows the basic template of the Chaney film but adds a political subplot involving the anti-imperialist revolutionary movement that was all the rage in China at the time with artists and college-types. As significant to Chinese cinema as Chaney’s film is was to the Western world, Song has itself been remade in China twice, most recently in 1995 as The Phantom Lover, directed by Freddy Vs Jason’s Ronny Yu and starring Farewell My Concubine’s Leslie Cheung as the Phantom.

Phantom of the Opera (1943)
Proving that remakes ain’t nothing new, when Universal saw their epic monster line starting to dwindle in the early 40’s they went back to the well, this time putting The Invisible Man, Claude Raines, behind the mask. The replica of the Paris Opera built for the 1925 version was still standing*, and simply re-used. Other than kicking the famous chandelier scene up a notch with (then) modern filmmaking techniques, the Raines version is definitely a Universal Monster lesser work. It was however very successful, so Universal decided to do what they didn’t do with the Chaney version – a sequel! Titled The Climax, scheduling problems with Raines killed the sequel, but not the film; Universal had already announced it. Instead the film was simply rewritten to star Boris Karloff as a physician who terrorizes a prima donna who reminds him of his ex-wife (who he all sortsa murdered years earlier). This film too re-used the Paris Opera sets.
* The set on Stage 28, known as “the Phantom Set,” is in fact still standing today.

The Phantom of the Opera (1962)
I like to imagine the offices of Hammer Film Productions had a plaque that read “If Universal Could Do It, We Can Do It Again! But With Boobs!” The location in Hammer’s film is now London, where Batman’s Michael Gough is opening a new opera house that soon finds itself bothered by a phantom, here played by Herbert Lom, best known for his role as Commissioner Dreyfus in the Pink Panther franchise. Hammer decided to give the Phantom a sinister dwarf lackey, who is ultimately the reason why the Opera House’s chandelier falls. Hammer also found a way to synergistically boost both the classic chandelier scene and the ending, by having the chandelier crush the Phantom after he saves Christine from certain doom.

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
In Brian De Palma’s bonkers rock musical adaptation, Erik is replaced by Winslow Leach (William Finley), a singer-songwriter who is discovered and then betrayed by an evil record mogul, Swan (Paul “Rainbow Connection” Williams). Framed for a crime by Swan, Leach’s teeth are replaced with metal in prison as part of an experiment carried out by a weird science organization, also run by Swan. Leach soon escapes from prison and goes on a terrorist vendetta against Swan. The film proves to be a reworking of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray too, as it is revealed that Swan made a deal with the devil to remain youthful forever as long as the videotape of Swan’s contract isn’t destroyed (which should be funny to anyone who knows the fickle shelf-life of videotapes). This, along with The Muppet Movie, make Williams (who also provided the Phantom’s singing voice here) a musical hero in my book.

The Phantom of the Opera: The Motion Picture (1989)
Dwight H. Little’s (Marked for Death) adaptation finds Robert Englund really stepping away from his Freddy look (now his face is horribly scarred by the Devil’s touch, instead of fire). Despite ramping up the horror elements to an appropriate 80’s level (the Phantom’s mask is made out of the flesh of his victims here), unlike most previous film reworkings, this film is more an adaptation of Leroux’s novel than an adaptation of the Chaney film. The “The Motion Picture” was tacked on to not draw confusion with a certain new smash-hit stage musical. A sequel was already in the works when the film was released, with plans to make the Phantom the next Freddy, but poor box office returns smothered that dream in the crib. Bill Nighy fans will be interested to know that a (slightly) youthful Nighy plays Christine’s love interest in the film.

Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge (1989)
This may sound like a sequel to something, but it’s just a bad title. This late 80’s curio, which features Pauly Shore in a supporting role, tells the story of Eric (Popcorn’s Derek Rydall), whose house was burnt down by unscrupulous developers so they could build the titular mall. But Eric survived and has been living, Bad Ronald-style, hiding in the mall’s vents and such. Now in the present he starts stalking his ex-girlfriend, Melody (Playboy Playmate, Kari Whitman), when she gets a job at the mall. This is more of a standard stalker, slasher flick, as its not like Eric is guiding Melody to become a star of her crappy mall job.

Il Fantasma dell’opera (1998)
The Phantom gone giallo. Dario Argento, well into his lackluster later-life phase, puts just a few minor tweaks on Leroux’s tale. Lets see here, well for one thing the Phantom (the Warlock himself, Julia Sands) isn’t disfigured at all, so he doesn’t wear a mask. He communicates with Christine using telepathy. He doesn’t teach Christine how to sing better. Because he’s all sexy now, the Phantom and Christine fuck a bunch. What else, what else… oh, yes, right, and the Phantom was raised by sewer rats. Just like Tarzan, but with rats. Man, I just made this movie sound way awesomer than it is.

The Phantom of the Opera (2004)
Joel Schumacher’s overwrought adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s already fairly wrought 80’s musical (not to be confused with the early 90’s musical Phantom), starring a less ab-tastic Gerard Butler as the Phantom, did not satisfy most fans of the play, or most audiences and critics in general. Its legacy likely will be people retroactively realizing, “Wait, that was the 300 guy? He can sing?”

Alright folks. That’s all we got for today. Looking over this list I think it’s time for Universal to dust off Stage 28 again.

See you next time!