The Opera Ghost Requests Your Presence

Phantom of the Opera 1925 1

It’s October, and you know what that means: spooky movies all month long! Every horror fan of a certain age has a favorite movie monster they first encountered as a child: Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, and of course, the Creature from the Black Lagoon. For me it was the Phantom of the Opera, whom I met in a number of cinematic guises before I was out of elementary school. The combination of grotesque horror, cliffhanger thrills, and doomed romance is like catnip to an impressionable young viewer.  Now it’s a fine chance to make the Phantom’s acquaintance right now, since TCM’s running the Lon Chaney silent version on October 7, and Herbert Lom’s turn in 1962 just made its Blu-ray bow in a sparkling new presentation as part of Universal’s Hammer horror set.

So here we go with a few thoughts about the many faces of the Phantom we’ve seen over the past century, and what’s remarkable about this seemingly immortal character is the fact that every significant movie adaptation has turned out to have something of value.

Mary Philbin and Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

The story of Erik, the disfigured opera ghost lurking beneath the Paris Opera, and his devotion to the naïve understudy Christine began as a French serial by the great Gaston Leroux over a century ago with its first novelization in 1910. The first English production of The Phantom of the Opera arrived as a classic but troubled 1925 silent film starring Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin, still beloved today for Chaney’s shocking (and painful) makeup achievements and its status as one of the earliest Universal Studios monster films. Director Rupert Julian was actually removed from the project before its completion, with at least three versions assembled over the years (but only two still in existence, the retooled general release version with the mob scene ending and an ill-advised talkie version). As an artistic achievement the film is only moderately impressive due to its “too many cooks” conception (compared to the virtuosity of films from the same era by the likes of Murnau, De Mille, Griffith, etc.), but as a Chaney showcase it’s still dynamite with some of his greatest moments captured in front of a camera. The mob ending may have been reshot to please a public demanding a splashier climax, but Chaney pulls it off with aplomb and one of the greatest, most tragic fake outs that ever closed out a horror film.

Phantom of the Opera 1943 3

Eighteen years later, Universal returned to the Phantom for a significant romantic overhaul. The Chaney film had one memorable sequence (the masquerade ball) in early two-strip Technicolor, but the 1943 version is a wall-to-wall blazing Technicolor extravaganza designed to sear your retinas with every color under the rainbow. With Universal going monster crazy again after the success of The Wolf Man (1941) and subsequent monster mash combos, this one was designed as an A-class affair with plenty of musical interludes for baritone Nelson Eddy and relative newcomer Susanna Foster (stepping in after original choice Deanna Durbin), almost relegating phantom Claude Rains (now named Erique Claudin) to a supporting role with a new subplot involving his stolen musical masterwork and an ill-timed splash of acid. As much as many fans gripe about the lengthy faux-opera interludes, I’m a real sucker for this version thanks to its wildly indulgent aesthetic and a really solid, sympathetic performance from Rains, who goes 180 degrees away from Chaney and comes out all the better for it.

Phantom of the Opera 1943 4

Phantom of the Opera 1962 1

By this point you could see a pattern emerging with a new film phantom crawling out just shy of every two decades, which continued with the third and final (to date) Universal  version in 1962 courtesy of Hammer Films’ The Phantom of the Opera with Herbert Lom.  Several plot elements from the Rains version have been retained here (notably the Phantom, no longer called Erik here, being motivated by the theft of his musical masterwork), and Hammer’s greatest director, Terence Fisher, really pulls out all the stops here with an extravagant fantasia filled with vast underwater moats, inspired deep-focus color compositions, and far more pathos than you’d expect with Lom (stepping in after original choice Cary Grant!) as perhaps the most sympathetic and passive Phantom of them all. In fact, the two real evildoers in this film, thieving scoundrel Lord Ambrose (Michael Gough) and murderous henchman (Ian Wilson), really don’t get any lasting comeuppance at all; this is less a revenge tale than a love story, with Heather Sears as one of the more interesting Christines. If you have any past releases of this film, the American Blu-ray transfer from Universal is easily the best, adding more picture info and greatly improving the color schemes compared to even the previous HD release in the U.K.

Phantom of the Opera 1962 2

Now you shouldn’t be surprised that it took nineteen more years for the Phantom to return. In the interim there were a few unofficial riffs on the premise: Brian De Palma’s delirious and absolutely wonderful Phantom of the Paradise (1974), which had to change its name from Phantom after legal threats from Universal (one of many legal entanglements it faced upon release); the same year’s made-for-TV production, The Phantom of Hollywood, which transposes the character to the real-life backlot of MGM as it was being dismantled; and Vincent Price came the closest to the role in his career when he took on the disfigured, lovelorn avenger The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971). On top of that, the Phantom made his first transition to the world of English-language stage musicals with a production written by Ken Hill, which would continue to play around the world for years.

Phantom of the Opera 1983 2

That brings us to 1983, when Universal’s legal claim on the Leroux property had finally lapsed for good. The first made-for-TV version of the venerable story was mounted in Budapest, with an international cast consisting of Maximilian Schell (as the Phantom, now named Sándor Korvin), Jane Seymour (in a dual role as the Phantom’s late wife, Elena, and the heroine ingénue, now named Maria), and Michael York (in the romantic Raoul lead role, now named Michael). Several pieces of the Claude Rains version are still present here, but as you’ve probably guessed, this one strays further afield from its source novel than any other adaptation. It’s quite lavish and nicely performed (the unmasking scene is especially strong), with Schell giving some real dramatic heft to his performance. This is probably the toughest English-language version to track down, but there are import DVDs floating around if you do a little digging.

Maximilian Schell in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1983)

The release of this version also opened the floodgates for non-Universal Phantom projects, with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Charles Hart commencing work on their future worldwide stage musical smash in 1984; it would open on the West End in ’86 and Broadway in ’88. Chatter about a movie version began immediately, but various hurdles kept it from going before the cameras for a very long time. In the meantime, 21st Century Film Corporation (Menahem Golan’s attempt to recapture the magic of Cannon Films) jumped on the bandwagon with its own 1989 version starring Robert Englund, a hot property at the time thanks to his iconic role as Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street series.

Phantom of the Opera 1989 3

I’d actually rank this as the most underrated of all the screen Phantoms as it’s quite beautifully mounted by director Dwight H. Little (Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers) and, apart from a peculiar framing device set in modern-day New York and a few other quirks, follows the book with surprising fidelity. Some production tampering insisting on some slasher-friendly elements feels a bit odd (Englund stitches his face mask together in gruesome fashion and lops off a few heads), but the actor’s flamboyant acting style suits the role well. The score by Misha Segel is a standout as well with a beautiful central melody that will stick in your head for hours. One of the era’s best scream queens, Jill Schoelen, also makes for a very engaging Christine, and you can even spot a young Molly Shannon as her pal in the opening scenes. If you don’t mind some trendy gore, give this one a shot; it’s a lot better than you’d think.

Phantom of the Opera 1989 1

Phantom of the Opera 1989 2

Phantom of the Opera 1991 1

The gambit to cash in on the Webber musical with a blood-spattered theatrical film didn’t set the box office on fire, but a rival production was underway around the same time anyway. In 1990 (the same year Susan Kay published her novel Phantom), a two-night NBC miniseries version unveiled under the hand of British director Tony Richardson, which goes the opposite direction by ditching the horror elements entirely thanks to the screenplay by Arthur Kopit (taken from a stage version he’d written that hadn’t been produced up to that point). The most genteel and romantic of all screen versions, this one headlines Burt Lancaster in the new leading role of a father figure to Erik (Charles Dance), who’s smitten with Christine (a pre-Meet the Parents Teri Polo). This one has quite the cult following, with some major assets including actual location shooting the Paris Opera House (a first for this tale) and my personal favorite of all Carlotta, played here with great verve by Andréa Ferréol.

Phantom of the Opera 1991 2
Phantom of the Opera 1998 1

Despite the fact that he’d already mined the Leroux material cleverly with his 1987 masterpiece Opera (a modern-day giallo take on the entire concept), Italian horror legend Dario Argento caved to public demands (namely an Italian magazine poll asking what he should adapt) and offered his own take on the novel in 1998 with an expensive production starring his daughter, Asia, and a strangely-cast Julian Sands (with long hair, no facial disfigurement, and an intimate fondness for rats). The result is almost universally cited as the worst of all the adaptations, which is absolutely true if you’re watching the clunky English-language version (with Sands in particular adopting a reedy, ill-conceived vocal delivery). However, if you watch any of the import releases in Italian with English subtitles, it does have some merits that shine through, namely a gorgeous score by the great Ennio Morricone, a corker of a chandelier drop, and some amusing macabre humor involving the rat catcher character (usually sidelined in most versions). It’s still a strange mess in the end (and the off-putting quality of the sex and nude scenes is a major problem), but if you want to see just how weird this story can get, by all means check it out.

Phantom of the Opera 1998 2

Phantom of the Opera 2004 2

After countless stagings of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical with stars including Michael Crawford, Norm Lewis, and Robert Guillaume, the most popular iteration of the Phantom finally went before the cameras for director Joel Schumacher in 2004 with non-professional singer Gerard Butler stepping into the title role (after Hugh Jackman proved unavailable). Critics were generally unkind to the film but many Phans loved it; I’m somewhere in between, finding Schumacher’s trademark excessive style somewhat hit and miss (the opening ten minutes hit the mark, while “Masquerade” definitely doesn’t). Butler’s odd accent is distracting at times, but he makes up for it with a roaring performance of “Point of No Return” (given an interesting conception as a fiery stage performance here). What the film really has in its favor is the best-acted Christine courtesy of a young Emmy Rossum (way before Shameless) and by far the screen’s best Raoul, with Broadway and screen Patrick Wilson imbuing the part with far more depth and complexity than the normally thankless role receives.

Phantom of the Opera 2004

So what’s the takeaway from looking back at all these very different film Phantoms? I think it’s that at the core there’s a universal appeal to the idea of a tragic, misunderstood soul lurking in shadows of high society and opulence, someone forced to watch the good life from the outside. It’s why so many kids gravitate to the story; his flawed appearance and proclivity for elaborate costumes and game playing make him a natural favorite for anyone who’s ever felt insecure or prone to flights of imagination. We’ll likely see many more versions of Leroux’s immortal tale in years to come, and I for one can’t wait to see what they have to offer.


8 Responses The Opera Ghost Requests Your Presence
Posted By Barcham : October 5, 2016 9:42 pm

As this is one of my favourite books, I eagerly await a truly faithful adaptation which follows the book to the letter. There is really no reason to change any aspect of the original story in any case and I have always wondered why no truly accurate version has ever been made. The same applies to one of my other favourite classic horror novels, Dracula. It is amazing that with all the various versions throughout film history, no one has yet made a faithful adaptation.

Posted By Flora : October 5, 2016 10:09 pm

I’m a fan of the Clude Rains version. I’ve seen the silent versioa lot as well, but I prefer Claude Rains.

I dis also seen the big screen version of the musical when Butler was the Phantom.

Posted By Nathaniel Thompson : October 5, 2016 10:46 pm

Ideally someone should shoot the Leroux book as a modern serial; it’s the only way you could really get the flavor of it. Between every version of Dracula you could probably cobble together everything from the book, oddly enough, but no one’s felt the need to shoot in faithfully from start to finish. (Though the Louis Jourdan one comes closest, as far as I know.)

Posted By Chris W : October 6, 2016 2:08 am

But, the Webber Phantom is so…so…slick.

I can almost hear the un-operatic rasping, hoarse cry of Chaney’s Phantom yelling out in protest. Good thing it was a silent, that would be some scream, maybe matching Munch’s painting.

Posted By George : October 7, 2016 9:00 pm

This is probably a minority opinion, but I prefer the ’62 Hammer version.

Posted By Autist : October 7, 2016 10:21 pm

“This is probably a minority opinion, but I prefer the ’62 Hammer version.”

Actually, so do I, but then I’ve never seen the Claude Rains version.

Posted By Bill : October 9, 2016 1:47 pm

The ’62 version was written at Cary Grant’s bequest, who then decided he didn’t need an image change that badly…

Posted By swac44 : October 10, 2016 3:21 pm

My favourite of the bunch is probably Phantom of the Paradise, although oddly my first exposure to the story was The Phantom of Hollywood, followed by the Schell/Seymour version.

The Rains one looks terrific on blu-ray, BTW, I have it in the Universal Monsters set that came out a few years back. I have a low tolerance for Nelson Eddy, but Rains makes it worth the watch.

Of all the multitude of versions of the Chaney Phantom, I think the BFI set from the UK has all the permutations, the best-looking version of the 1925 cut (which I believe only exists in 16mm) and the silent version of the sound reissue, which has the Technicolor and recreated Handschiegel stencil colour sequence. As a bonus, there is one reel that’s synced up with one (the only?) of the surviving sound discs so you can get an idea of what that was like. (Of course, it’s better silent, with a good orchestral score or pipe organ accompaniment.)

Also…who can forget Phantom of the Mall: Erik’s Revenge with Morgan Fairchild? I know I can.

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