When Hammer Films was on a roll remaking classic horror stories the idea of revisiting a masked man lurking in an opera house was inevitable. What they never imagined was that the surefire hit would be anything but. This film bombed so spectacularly that it nearly ended the director’s career. Uneven and draggy, the new Phantom failed to terrify audiences despite some redeeming qualities to the production.
Imagine having Cary Grant playing one of the most famous movie villains of all time. Imagine that the movie would be made by Hammer Films, a studio having massive success releasing color remakes of black and white classic horror flicks. Imagine the box office receipts!
That’s the thinking that started The Phantom of the Opera remake into fast development. What was finally unveiled to the public not only lacked the superstar actor, but also the frights of Gaston Leroux’s novel. There is some confusion as to whether Grant may have been set to star as either the titular villain or the heroic lead, however it really doesn’t matter since he wouldn’t have been able to save this rather bloodless movie.
The movie starts out promisingly enough with a fugue being played on an organ by a masked man in an underground lair. An iconic image to be sure and the kind of thing a kid in a theater looking for some scares would enjoy. It bodes well.
Then an extreme close up of the gray haired and blue skinned man’s single eye glaring out of a crudely made blank face mask freezes to form a backdrop for the title and credits to roll over. It goes on for too long, the first warning that the roughly 90 minute movie is going to drag a bit.
Originally set in Paris, the location for the classic story has been moved to the London Opera House. Watching the audience enter is a smarmy upper class twit eagerly awaiting the debut of his first opera, an adaptation of the life of Joan of Arc. Born with an expression that makes you want to punch him out, Lord Ambrose d’Arcy (Michael Gough) has the manager Lattimer (Thorley Waters in his usual type of role) brief him on the concern about whether there have been more “incidents.”
Vandalism seems to be the order of the day, ranging from a poster outside to one of the drums for the orchestra being slashed. Also causing consternation for the irritating and imperious noble is the sole premium balcony booth remaining unsold. Apparently people won’t use it because they hear “voices” there.
Yep, it is shaping up to be an eventful first night.
Opera’s are nothing without their divas and Maria (Liane Aukin) is the best of the best from Europe. Unnerved after sighting a man in black, she has to be calmed down by the handsome young director named Harry Hunter (Edward de Souza). Given that kind of name he seems like he just stepped out of a dreadful Harlequin romance novel.
Anyway, the show must go on and so must this review.
Don’t you hate it when you find hunchbacked dwarves lurking in your rafters? No telling what damage they might do. Though in this case the dwarf doesn’t look as short as his label would suggest. He’s a hint of sinister events to come and soon Maria finds an all new way to hit a high note.
So far, so good for a horror movie.
As opening nights go, it was an exciting one, but not the kind for business success. Now in need of a replacement for the role of Joan, auditions are held much to Abrose’s irritation. Finding a girl with both a voice and looks that meet his requirements, the efforts to continue the opera do not go unobserved.
Miss Christine Charles (Heather Sears) has the pipes for the job plus other attributes that earn her both the role and a dinner date with Lord d’Arcy. A mysterious voice warns the ingénue to beware of her benefactor while promising to instruct her in perfecting her singing. Not only do I want to punch Ambrose out, so does the disembodied speaker.
Very quickly the young woman learns that have two overbearing men pursuing her isn’t as much fun as it would seem. A very uncomfortable dinner date reveals just what a creep the nobleman is in an effective scene that should make every father want to punch out the next guy trying to date his daughter.
Any excuse to punch out Ambrose is valid in my opinion.
Since Harry Hunter has to be the hero due to name and appearance, he swoops in to save the day. Though his idea of after dinner entertainment may be more wholesome than d’Arcy’s, it certainly isn’t recommended. Investigating a dark theater for clues certainly sounds like a setup for hanky panky and the cleaning women there are pretty certain that’s the case.
There is one thing that can be said about class divisions and warfare in England: the lower class couldn’t get any lower in behavior, at least in this film. Nasty, uneducated harpies would be a kind description of the cleaners. In fact, they are the most frightening thing in the film so far.
Quite a bit nicer, though scarier at first glance, is the rat catcher. Played by Patrick Troughton years before he became the second Doctor in Doctor Who, he makes the most of his small role. Really, it is a standout performance typical of bit characters in Hammer movies and made memorable when actual rats are used instead of possums like 1931’s Dracula.
The Phantom (Herbert Lom) is never called “the phantom” oddly enough and it is at this late point that he makes his full entrance. Unfortunately, it isn’t frightening as it should be, perhaps due to the unintimidating mask he’s wearing. The scene really doesn’t go anywhere, adding to the ineffectiveness at building chills.
Not having gotten what he wanted, Ambrose fires his new lead and starts auditions anew. It turns out Miss Charles was an aberrant moment of showing good taste in women. Thinking above the belt is apparently impossible for the jerk, so it is amazing he was able to compose good music and build an opera around it.
Meanwhile, Harry and Christine make the most of their unemployment by going out on a date. It’s sappy old fashioned romance though moving along mighty fast in my opinion. Of course it is build up to provide motivation for the hero later in the movie, however the scene goes a few too many beats longer than necessary.
Still, the mystery of the opera house hasn’t been let go of by Hunter and when an unexpected clue falls into his lap, he makes the most of the opportunity.
Even as Harry closes in on the truth, peril closes in on Christine. The mysterious mad man in black will not have his vengeful agenda denied…
What a disappointing effort this take on Phantom was. More than a few flaws mar the movie with the worst being a decidedly lackluster script that changed the story considerably from the original tale of a deformed madman obsessed with a young woman. Taking many of its cues from the 1943 Universal adaptation, it further diluted the villainy of the Phantom by making him an almost completely likable victim. While thematically intriguing, it deprived the story of having a real edge to it, which is what a horror movie must have to succeed.
It also managed to waste the superb performance of Herbert Lom while committing the biggest sin a thriller can commit: being boring for long stretches of time. It would be different if character development was responsible, for it can add considerably to the shock effect when something does happen. Instead the film meanders around listlessly as if the director only cared about getting from one point in the plot to the next without putting too much effort into the execution. Pedestrian would be proper word to describe director Terence Fisher’s work here.
The end product was more a Greek tragedy mixed with standard mystery than a thriller or horror movie.
That’s very surprising given Fisher’s adept earlier turns at rebooting Dracula and Frankenstein. Ostensibly it cost him work at Hammer for a couple of years and he ended up directing a Pat Boone (no relation) comedy during the interim.
Going back to the star of the movie, Herbert Lom’s performance through the mask using his partially muffled voice and body language is one of the brightest spots. His Phantom may not be scary, but there is nuance and emotion in every moment he’s on screen. Possibly one of the most underrated actors of all time, Lom was supremely talented managing to excel at both comedy and drama. Most people will be familiar with him as Chief Inspector Dreyfuss in the Pink Panther series of movies.
In fact, the ending to 1976’s The Pink Panther Returns riffs heavily on his performance in this movie, something I didn’t realize until I wrote this review. Anyone who could effortlessly steal scenes from Peter Sellers had to be a force to be reckoned with! I admit, I may be a slightly prejudiced since Lom was one of my favorite actors growing up.
Also adding to the movie is the lavish spectacle of the opera being staged. Quite a bit of the final act is taken up by a condensed version that was staged with help from a real opera director, Dennis Maunder. Alas, while interesting in itself, it does contribute to the slowness of the movie.
Officially not rated, I would judge the content as being PG with very little in the way of blood and only a few disturbing images of violence. Kids ten and up should be able to handle it.
To sum things up, the movie isn’t bad, yet it really isn’t good either. It is a solid B-movie for viewing late at night. Recommended as a curiosity to Phantom of the Opera fans and Hammer Films buffs.
Phantom of the Opera is the first film on Side B of Disc 1 in Universal’s The Hammer Horror Series DVD set. Quality varies from film to film in the set and sadly this is not one of the better transfers despite being a 2.00:1 anamorphic widescreen release.
Originally filmed in glorious Technicolor, the transfer is a disappointment much like the movie itself was. Colors are distinct, yet muted when they should be vibrant. Compounding the issue is that certain scenes suffer from out of register alignments between the three strips used in Technicolor. As a result, red and blue haloing pop out around the edges of actors and objects, especially in the shots of the underground lair.
My suspicion is that some of the film scanned in was from strips of glued together Technicolor film that became misaligned over time. That particular problem affected the original DVD release of Gorgo here in North America.
Contrast is variable in quality, never becoming a complete mess, yet the blacks are not as graduated as it could be. Some scenes are a tad blurry and more than a few are soft. In fact, the occasional sharp looking scene jumps out more due to this. Again, it could be due to the issue mentioned above. Film grain is present, which is a good thing since it hasn’t been denoised to death.
The monaural Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack is clean without noticeable flaws, though it shows some limits during the singing. Whether that was due to recording methods of the time or the condition of the prints used for this release is a question.
Subtitles are available in French, Spanish, and English Closed Captioning for the hearing impaired.
There are zero extras, not even a theatrical trailer.
BEWARE! HERE BE SPOILERS!!!
Boot camp has nothing on the Phantom’s training methods. Making Miss Charles sing until she passes out is impressive enough, but having his henchman bring him a cup of sewer water to splash in her face is hardcore.
Usually the Phantom is obsessive about the gal singer in the story in a romantic way. Not so much in this version.
The underground lair is pretty nifty and actually plausible in design. Basically a sewer outlet into the river is the only way to get in, however there is a secret passageway into the opera house.
Having Harry the hero stumble his way through the filthy water was atmospheric but I can’t decide if the dwarf using the snorkel to ambush him was brilliant or ridiculous.
Tilting the camera for the flashback taking place in Professor Petrie’s crazed mind was a nice touch. It works as a metaphor for his unbalanced brain as well as making it clear to the audience it happening in the past. Lom is electric in these scenes as a desperate man breaking down after being wronged.
Gough essentially played himself in the role of Ambrose. In real life he was a notorious womanizer and hedonist so it wasn’t much of a stretch to play the smarmy twit.
Petrie lost everything to d’Arcy’s fraud. Though a musical genius, the professor wasn’t the best speller. “Symphany”?
Quite a gaffe on the prop with such obvious effort put into the elegant calligraphy. Somehow it is a fitting emblem for the entire production.
The Phantom becoming scarred by accident is new in this version, though acid being the primary culprit was introduced in the Claude Rains version.
After hearing the full story, Harry and Christine are moved by the dying man’s plight and become his co-conspirators in a radical change from previous adaptations. No longer frightening, Petrie becomes one of the good guys at this point.
With that, it ceases to be a horror movie.
The unmasking is always the big moment in the story and they managed to completely botch it. We don’t even see his face, only the creep’s reaction to it. That’s the last we see of Ambrose… because he runs off.
There is absolutely no closure with the fate of the true villain of the story left completely up in the air. We didn’t even get to see someone punch d’Arcy in the face. That’s simply a huge story telling mistake.
Having Petrie coach Christine from the normally empty booth is more than a little corny. He’s out there in plain view and nobody notices him!
The show within the show is well executed, though it eats up way too much of the final minutes of the movie. Some very interesting set designs are shown including the trial which is very well done indeed.
Everybody know the chandelier is there to drop on the audience, right? Not in this version. Melodrama and a need for a damsel in distress means it is there to jeopardize Christine. Worse yet, the whole thing is an accident caused when the crazed dwarf is chased around in the rafters by a stagehand.
Realizing the danger of the fraying rope, two men race to save the singer, but it is the Professor who gets there first. He takes off his mask to reveal the hideous acid burns before jumping down to save the girl. THIS MAKES NO SENSE AT ALL.
It was if they realized they’d forgotten to show his face and had to shoehorn it in at the last possible moment. Though garish, the appearance is anticlimactic with none of the drama of Lon Cheney’s back in 1925.
Hurling Christine aside, the Phantom is crushed to death under the chandelier to die a hero’s death. With that the original story has been turned on end by this adaptation.
As for the mute murderer dwarf, he appears like he might be ready to cry having accidentally killed his only friend. It’s a bizarre little moment in a movie that’s gone off the rails at the final stop. Heavily implied is that all the killings were his alone, further distancing the Phantom from the source material.
The movie ends much like it started, except the mask is now empty. It was a really cheap affair that looked like it belonged to a high school production.
Empty is also how I would describe the feeling left after watching the finale. It was not satisfying.