Directed by Terence Fisher. Starring Herbert Lom, Heather Sears, Edward de Souza, Michael Gough, Thorley Walters
After Hammer had a hit with their technicolor shocker The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, they declared open season on the classic monsters from the Universal Studios stable of the ‘30s and ‘40s. Dracula, the Mummy, and the Wolf Man all lined up for the Hammer Horror florid and colorful British treatment, usually under the auspices of director Terence Fisher and screenwriter Jimmy Sangster. It was inevitable that the studio tackle the Phantom of the Opera, the first Universal Studios monster success.
What’s strange is how unknown the Hammer Phantom of the Opera remains today. Their versions of Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, Sherlock Holmes, and the Werewolf are still visible classics, but The Phantom of the Opera, even with Fisher at the helm, was poorly received in its time and maintains a lower profile than other cinematic adaptations of the story of the tortured and murderous composer beneath the opera house.
There have been literally millions of adaptations of Gaston Leroux’s pulpy 1910 novel. The most famous is Universal’s silent 1925 classic directed by Rupert Julian and starring Lon Chaney Sr. in his signature role. Few modern viewers have watched the entire film, but everybody knows the legendary unmasking scene which stunned audiences in the ‘20s and is one of horror cinema’s indelible images. I think it’s the best version made of the story, and it stays closer to the horrific nature of Leroux’s book (which I’ll admit I do not much enjoy) instead of the romantic re-interpretation that dominates most versions of the Phantom today. Thank you so bloody much, Andrew Lloyd Weber.
Universal took a second crack at the character in 1943 with a lavish color re-make starring Claude Rains, but they forgot the fright and instead went for musical extravaganza. Since then, we’ve had multiple TV versions, a slasher-geared interpretation with Robert Englund, and an adaptation of the popular stage musical starring Gerard Butler. Thank you so bloody much, Andrew Lloyd Weber and Joel Schumacher. At least there’s Brian De Palma’s wonderfully weird glam-rock version, The Phantom of the Paradise, to even the scales.
So many Phantoms, not enough time. But it is time to talk about the neglected Hammer version. Please take your haunted balcony seats, as the curtain rises. . . .
The story starts with the tried-and-true formula we all know. The Phantom (Lom) haunts a London opera house, tormenting the haughty composer Lord Ambrose D’Arcy (Gough). He ruins D’Arcy’s newest opera on opening night by dropping the corpse of a stagehand into the middle of the lead singer Maria’s aria. D’Arcy should really have thanked the Phantom, since the Joan of Arc opera looks like a silly affair. If this were a real opera, it would close in one week—no need to have the Phantom dropping dead bodies to shut it down. One of the sung lines is “You lousy Frenchie!”—really! This appears intentional on the filmmakers’ part, since the final staging of the opera at the end of the movie is marvelous.
Now we have a triangle of attraction around Christine: the normal guy, the aristocratic sexual blackmailer, and the disfigured murderer. Go Christine!
After the Phantom’s servant stabs the old rat-catcher in the eye for no apparent reason, the Phantom makes his first full fledged appearance to Christine. The Phantom’s mask, seen briefly in the opening credits, is a gray, almost featureless full covering that lets only one eye through and looks like an extension of the Phantom’s colorless rotting skin. It’s a ghastly and wonderful design, much better than the cleaner and stylish ones common today. The eventual revelation of the the Phantom’s scarring is quick and not much of a shock, but the make-up is at least unusual.
D’Arcy dismisses Christine entirely from the show because she won’t accept his advances, and tosses Harry out for objecting. Harry and Christine find themselves thrown together—lips occasionally locked—and start to investigate the history of the Phantom.
The Phantom turns out to be a former singing school instructor and composer, Professor Petrie. Supposedly burned to death in a fire at a print shop, in truth, he leaped into the river and flowed into a grotto beneath the opera house. D’Arcy stole Petrie’s music to compose his opera, and the Phantom is just a mite bit peeved.
The Phantom sends his hunchback mute servant (Ian Wilson) to kidnap Christine, all to the accompaniment of Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor, the quintessential spooky organ piece. At long last, (the fifty-minute mark) Herbert Lom gets to flash his acting chops as the Phantom. He’s excellent, showing a Phantom who has humility but also a streak of true psychosis. He often slips out of the present and begins to yell and shout at unseen people and forget where he is. He isn’t a real romantic possibility for Christine—this is where John Elder’s screenplay is different from the contemporary, Casanova Phantom—and he viciously strikes her and tries working her to death so she can sing his music for him the way he has always wanted to hear it. Lom is also good in the flashbacks scenes showing how D’Arcy cruelly used him until he snapped.
D’Arcy is the true villain of the tale, and of all the versions of the story that I’ve scene, no one has outdone Michael Gough as the target of the Phantom’s wrath. D’Arcy is a skin-crawling, vicious tyrant. Gough appeared in many Hammer films, and would later play Alfred the Butler in the first four Warner Bros. Batman films, but I’ve never seen him give a better performance than he delivers here.
As the film closes in on the climax, the opera seems quite capable of crashing and burning on its own from D’Arcy’s ego without any help from the Phantom. Harry descends into the catacombs to find Christine, and the viewers may think they know what to expect, but the movie has some strange surprises that change the traditional “Phantom” conclusion.
Director Fisher has a flair with the strange working-class Victorian Londoners who wander through the story, like the rat-catcher (played by future Doctor Who and Omen victim Patrick Troughton), the scullery women, and the hansom cab driver who worries about getting home in time for the ‘missus.’ On the opposite side, Fisher displays a real joy for the presentation of the opera that concludes the film. Where the opera at the opening appeared overtly silly, the finale with Sears as the singing star is passionate and colorful, and Sears is radiant in her part. Like any Terence Fisher movie, the entire production looks sumptuous in its startling colors and busy Victorian Gothic decor.
However, although the movie keeps away from the romantic lushness that is standard Phantom-fare today, it doesn’t have the horror you might expect from a Hammer movie either. The only shock is the gruesome rat-catcher stabbing, and the body count remains low because the Phantom never seems interested in unleashing that much terror. Lord D’Arcy also escapes without any appropriate punishment. This might account for why Hammer’s Phantom of the Opera has fallen through the cracks: it’s neither a shock show like the 1925 version, or a romantic fable like the stage musical. It hovers between, and never finds its tone. It’s still worthwhile to Hammer fans and anyone whose enjoyed the other “Phantoms.” Lom and Gough’s performances are recommendation enough, I think.
The Phantom of the Opera is available on DVD in a two-disc package, The Hammer Horror Series, which crams eight movies onto two double-sided discs. There are no extras, but it’s still a helluva bargain (and you get the best of the Dracula sequels, Brides of Dracula, plus Curse of the Werewolf and two underrated horrors, The Evil of Frankenstein and the Kiss of the Vampire). The disc retains the film’s unusual aspect ratio of 2:1 anamorphic; Hammer films are customarily in full scope (2.35:1), or flat (masked to 1.85:1 or the particularly European 1.66:1). The picture is good, capturing the rich palette of colors that made Terence Fisher Gothics such rich experiences.
P.S.: If you haven’t seen the silent Universal version, please take the time to do so. It’s worth it, and the current DVD is excellent, containing the original color tints and the preservation of the scenes that were shot in an early two-color technicolor process. It’s a cinematic treasure.