Monday, October 15, 2012

The Phantom of the Opera - A Look Back

From a landmark silent movie … to becoming one of Universals original faces of horror … to a famous Broadway musical … “The Phantom of the Opera” has had quite a history. Living up to his name, this is a character that never truly dies, and always finds new life in the media for every new generation. 
Before I get into all of that, I should start by giving the character some context. It all began with a French novel published in 1910, and authored by one Gaston Leroux. “The Phantom of the Opera” tells the tale of a physically-deformed, and mentally-disturbed genius, who was one of the architects that took part in the construction of an opera house, and secretly built a home for himself in the Opera’s cellars. While in the shadows, he secretly teaches a young talent named Christine Daaé to be an Opera singing sensation. Over time, he gradually falls in love with his student, and dose all in his power to make sure she stays in the spot light … even if that means disposing of a competitive singer or two. Things take a dark turn when Christine’s boyfriend Raoul enters the picture, and it drives the Phantom to be all the more possessive of his prized pupal. 
In the vain of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, the Phantom is a tale of identifying both the beauty and ugly that lies within a man who resembles a monster. There have been at least a dozen different screen versions of the character, so … for a special October treat … let’s take a look at the ever-growing legacy of one of Hollywood’s and Broadways most famous monsters. I’m mostly going to highlight the ones that are relevant to his legacy, or ones that I’ve personally seen, and developed opinions on. On that note, while I highlight these different adaptions, I'll also be giving my own personal opinion on how they’ve connected with me as a long-time fan of this character.  

The Phantom of the Opera” (1925) (Silent Movie) 

At the dawn of motion picture cinema … at the height of the silent-film area … “The Phantom of the Opera” marked one of America’s first land mark horror movies. After all these years, this film is almost universally regarded as the absolute greatest and most influential film version of "The Phantom of the Opera". It contained a highly influential color sequence, which showed-off the films stunning set designs, colorful costumes, and was all-around a technical marvel for its time. Beyond that, the big attraction of this film is Lon Chaney in the role of The Phantom, who conveys a great deal of passion and emotion into this performance without speaking a single line of dialogue. It’s a great example of a “visual performance”, and he’s honestly quiet captivating in the role all these years later. 
I first saw this movie way back when I was just a High-School student studying in Drama class, and I remember Lon Chaney’s performance impacting me through his use of body movements and postures. Equally credible was Chaney’s contribution to the look and design of the Phantom. Most other films have the same looking Phantom with a stage mask and black suit, but this films depiction of the Phantom is completely unique, and has never been replicated. Even if you’ve never seen this movie, you may still be aware of the footage of Chaney’s famous unmasking scene, which is often cited as one of the most startling moments from the age of silent motion picture cinema. Chaney was also his own make-up man, and his grotesque face is still one of the most iconic of the whole horror genera. While I can’t say this film really thrilled me, it did still hold my attention more than I expected, and I absolutely respect its status as a film classic. I wouldn’t personally call this a favorite that I re-watch often, but it’s certainly worth viewing. Even if you’re not a fan of old silent films, you might still be impressed by this movie … just as long as you view it as an accomplishment for its time.

"The Phantom of the Opera" (1943) (Universal Classic) 

After the silent movies of the 1920’s, Universal pioneered the earliest sound horror films with iconic movie monsters including “Dracula”, “Frankenstein” and “The Wolf Man”. It was in 1943 that Universal released the first sound version of “The Phantom of the Opera”, which was also a rare color horror movie for its time, as all the other classic monsters were only presented in Black and White. While this film lives in the shadow of its 1925 predecessor, this version is still regarded as a landmark in its own right. 
It’s when The Phantom of the Opera became one with Universals eight classic horror icons, and it’s the film that introduced his modern look … with the stage mask covering his face, the big hat, and all black theatrical attire. Following after his success as “The Invisible Man”, Claude Rains once again shined as “The Phantom of the Opera” in this version. In many respects, he’s the second-best actor to make an icon out of the tragic villain. Susanna Foster also shines as the Phantoms forbidden love Christine, and personally, this is my favorite portrayal of the character from any version. This also remains one of the absolute best-looking Phantom movies, with stunning set designs, and bright colors everywhere you look. Unfortunately, this film has some narrative problems and oddly placed comedy that keeps it from achieving greatness. Instead of one boyfriend coming between Christine and the Phantom … this movie has two … which is too much. Half the time, the antics between the two boy-friends hijack the movie from our two principle characters, and it gets old fast. While the film has its faults, it’s also got the spectacle, and a two solid leading performance, which is enough to rank this among the better film versions.   

The Phantom of the Opera” (1962) (Hammer Studio’s Remake) 

Throughout the 1950’s and 60’s, a British studio called Hammer film productions remade all of Universals classic monster movies in the vain of “Dracula”, “The Mummy”, “Frankenstein”, and so forth. So naturally, in 1962, Hammer released their own version of “The Phantom of the Opera”. This was actually the first non-musical film version of the Phantom I ever saw in my life time, and I personally like it more than the previous two classics. 
This film makes the Phantom far more sympathetic then most other versions, while still keeping him a mysterious and imposing figure. It also features my absolute favorite sequence of the falling chandelier. Most other versions feature the Phantom actively sabotaging the chandelier to fall on stage, but in this version its sudden accident. This leads into a harrowing, yet tragic climax, in which the Phantom leaps to the girl’s rescue, sacrificing his life to save hers. This film also gives the Phantom a hunchbacked side-kick, which is different, but a welcome addition. Herbert Lom of “Pink Panther” fame, adorns the role of the Phantom, and dose a respectable job. The supporting characters are good, including a stand-out supporting role from Michael Gough (Batman’s Alfred), as a corporate villain running the theater. While this film version has never impacted the legacy of the character, and is often glanced over … it’s remains my personal favorite movie version of “The Phantom of the Opera”.

"The Phantom of the Opera" (1986) (Broadway musical) 

After several years of being a horror movie icon, The Phantom of the Opera would make a game changing transition into musical theater in 1986. It was Andrew Lloyd Webber who took the bare ingredients of this character, and turned it into a completely original, musical phenomenon. 
The Broadway musical adaptation of “The Phantom of the Opera” was a huge success, and has gone on to become a classic in its own right. In fact, it changed the way people viewed the character, as he was now a stage icon as opposed to a Horror mascot, and it’s remained his most popular image in the public eye. Some audiences even credit Andrew Lloyd Webber for creating the character, even though Gaston Leroux was the original architect behind the Phantom. Heck, even Michael Crawford has joined the ranks of Lon Chaney and Claude Rains as an immortal portrayal of the iconic character. Still to this day, “The Phantom of the Opera” remains one of my favorite musicals from the 80’s golden age of Broadway hits. The songs are all memorable, the atmosphere is rich, the set design was a marvel to behold on stage, and it remains the landmark event in the Phantoms legacy that has yet to be topped. 

The Phantom of the Opera” (1989) (Horror Reboot) 

Shortly after the huge success of the musical, there was another theatrical presentation of “Phantom of the Opera” in 1989, and this one aimed to bring the Phantom back to its horror genera roots. However, by the Phantoms standards, this reboot was Horror on steroids, with lots of gore, a disturbed tone, chilling atmosphere, creepy set designs, demonic elements, and even Freddy Krueger himself Robert Englund took on the role of the Phantom. 
I have to say, this is one of my favorite performances of the Phantom, as Robert Englund infuses the character with a lot of chilling menace, but he’s also very poetic and intelligent, which makes the character all the more interesting to watch. Jill Schoelen is also very likable as Christine Daaé in this version, and looks great on screen. The remaining characters all do a good job holding their own, the direction is unique, and the passing is very good. It’s unfortunate though that the story losses itself with one too many confusing plot points, including time-travel, reincarnations, an appearance from the Devil, and other demonic elements that have nothing to do with the source material. A part of me wants to label this film as an underrated version of “The Phantom of the Opera”, because it is engaging to watch, but regrettably, the stuff that doesn’t work in this film ruin all the good that the movie has to offer.

The Phantom of the Opera” (1998) (Italian Reboot) 

It was at the end of the millennium that Gaston Leroux's Novel “Le Fantôme de l'Opéra” would be adapted into an Italian Horror film, except this one didn’t get a theatrical release, and was instead a direct to video production. While this version tried to stick closer to the events of the book, it still made some huge changes … for the worst. 

The Phantom this time is not disfigured, and has a back-story more fitting for a Batman villain. Just like how the Penguin from “Batman Returns” was abandoned by his parents as a baby, and Raised by Penguins in the sewer, the same thing happens to this Phantom ... except he’s raised by creepy red-eyed rats instead of Penguins. So, how many remakes does it take before a good story gets stupid and unwatchable? Well … jumping right to the opinion, this is the worst version of “The Phantom of the Opera”, but even that’s a gross understatement. This Phantom possess none of the class or mystique that characterized all the previous versions, and instead we have this creepy rat-person, who’s also a sexual predator. The only two things we’ll see him do throughout the movie are sleep with rats and rape woman … it’s as far removed from a quality film as you can possibly get. The movie also drags at a dull pace, there are lots of stupid, random scenes that have nothing to do with anything, and it all concludes with one of the worst endings ever committed to film … I think I’ll leave it at that. Skip this film entirely, and just stick with any other version.

The Phantom of the Opera” (2004) (Musical Motion Picture) 

After two failed Horror reboots, director Joel Schumacher helm'd a different project, a theatrical musical rendition of “The Phantom of the Opera” adapted from the hit Broadway play. The movie came out in 2004, and while it was a modest success, it unfortunately got some really negative reviews from critics. Still, the film has its fans, and being completely transparent for a moment … this is the movie I have the most nostalgic fondness for. 
For both me and my sister, this was our introduction to the Phantom of the Opera, and what got the ball rolling. While I didn’t care for this movie upon my first viewing, it’s stuck with me over the years, and I find myself liking it more with each viewing. It still has faults, with some boring sequences, an inconsistent color scheme, and an autopilot direction from Schumacher. Still, there’s quality to be found in the film’s sheer spectacle. The costumes are good, the cinematography is great, the visuals are impressive, and the sets are amazing to look at. While the cast doesn’t always stick a landing, I still remember everyone in their respected roles … including a miscast Gerard Butler, who’s portrayal of the Phantom has still stuck with me as a memorable one. This again applies to Emmy Rossum as Christine, who isn’t the best performance, yet she’s always the face that comes to mind first when I think of the character. I can’t make a persuasive argument that it’s one of the millenniums best movie-musicals, but it’s remained a small favorite of mine, and one that I think is a little better than its reputation would suggest. If you’re a fan of the Broadway play, I say checkout this version of “The Phantom of the Opera” for an unremarkable … yet satisfying experience.

    While other film versions, and even a sequel to the Broadway musical have come about over the years, I’m at the point where I think I can stop. In conclusion, you can view The Phantom of the Opera as both a staple of Horror cinema and Broadway Musicals, and as such ... he’s become one of my favorite monster-based characters. He’s had a rich legacy with various films, stories, stage productions, and it’s made the Phantom all the more fascinating to watch evolve over the years ... and beyond. 


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