All October I’ve been reviewing movies about vampires, werewolves, mummy’s and reanimated corpses, but today’s monster is something very different, and completely human. The 1943 motion picture “The Phantom of the Opera”, is definitely the odd ball of the 8 classic universal monster movies. It’s the only film to be shot in color as opposed to black and white, it didn’t have any sequels, it’s based 100% in the real world with no science or sorcery, and even though it’s the first sound version of the film, it’s not as classic as its silent movie predecessor. All the classic monsters had silent movies prior to the sound version, but the 1925 silent film “The Phantom of the Opera” was a landmark achievement that’s often regarded as one of the greatest horror movies of all time, and is often regarded as the best version of the film. When you combine that with the booming success of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic 1986 musicale, the 1943 classic seems to fall by the waist side. This happens to be my least favorite installment of the 8 classic Universal monster movies, and just like my experience with “The Mummy”, I was introduced to several other renditions of the film, and the musicale first, which already put this at a disadvantage.
The movie is based on the 1910 novel “The Phantom of the Opera” by Gaston Leroux, and keeping in tradition with all these movies, it changes some things from the book. Here’s the set up, Christine DuBois is a cores girl at an Opera, and many people there believe that she has so much potential to be a real star. One shy violinist named Enrique Claudin is determined to help Christine in her singing carrier, in fact he is obsessed with her vocal talents, and rights her a new song. His single obsession slowly starts ruining his life, he loses his job at the Opera and he owes a lot of people money. Then after he mistakes someone for stealing his music, a fight breaks out, which ends with acid being thrown in his face. While his face gets horribly burned, Claudin survives, steals a costume from the theater, and hides in the sewers. Now he becomes Christine’s watchful guardian, who dose all in his power to make sure that she becomes a famous singer, even if that means killing an actress or two in the process.
My first big issue with this movie is that there’s nothing mysterious or interesting about this movies lead monster. Most other versions of “The Phantom of the Opera” portray him as this mysterious person who pears out to us from the shadows. Very little was known about him, and most of the characters were so frightened by his mystique that they mistook him for a ghost, which is why they called him the Phantom of the Opera. But this movie shows us his story from the ground up, we know how he got the disfigured face, we know who he was before hand, and we know exactly what he wants, which defeats his mystique entirely, and ruins all the fascination you could have for a character like this. The other characters don’t even refer to him as the Phantom of the Opera throughout the entire movie, everyone knows who he is, and what he’s capable off. Now this approach could have worked if he was the main character, but he really isn't, in fact he comes off like a secondary character, and isn't even featured that often in the film. Most of the attention is given to Christine, her carrier and her love life, which really undermines our films lead monster. I will say that I love all the shadow effects in which we see the phantoms shadowy outline against a wall, these are the only moments in the film in which he feels mysterious and foreboding.
One other compliment I should give to the film is its production design, which is quiet impressive. The sets are so detailed, so grand and sense it’s all in color, you can really take in the beauty, size and scope of its layout more than the other Universal monster movies. The theater's stage is always a dazzling and elaborate set. Even the underground sewers are very impressive to look at.
I also like the Phantoms overall design, the makeup for his scarred face is nothing special but his costume is really good. This is the film that introduced his iconic opera mask which would be universal in all his other media portrayals, and I really like his big hat which ties his costume together nicely. The Phantom is played by Claude Rains, a great actor who’s done well even in supporting roles like the father in “The Wolf Man”, but oddly enough, he seems to represent both the best and worst of what the Universal monsters have to offer. He was outstanding in the title role of “The Invisible Man” from the 1933 classic, and to this day, it’s still my favorite villain performance I’ve ever seen in a horror movie. However, his portrayal of the Phantom in this film is actually my least favorite of all the Universal monster performances. Personally, I just don’t think he was given much to work with, in “The Invisible Man” he had long monologues in which he elevated his voice in a way that was deeply thrilling to listen to. He also displayed a wide aroma of acting talents ranging from sympathetic, to funny, to frightening. As the Phantom, he’s only sympathetic, and while he does that well, he just doesn’t convey enough menace to leave an impression.
In the plus column, our female lead Christine, played by Susanna Foster is fantastic, in fact, she might just be the best of all the female leads featured in any of these Universal monster movies. Not only is she incredibly beautiful, but she’s also charming, independent and has her own personal conflicts, choosing between the people she loves or the carrier of her dreams, which makes her a little more interesting. Now there are some small things to nit-pick about her, for example while she sings very well, her overall delivery feels just a little too over the top, but that’s why I’m not a singing critique because it’s probably fitting for an opera. Also, as usual she gets kidnapped, but this time it’s kind of embarrassing because she clearly could have put up a bigger fight, or at the very least call for help, considering that her friends were just around the corner. If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about. But that still doesn’t ruin her character, who is without a doubt one of the strongest female leads from the Universal monster movie catalogue.
Unfortunately, for every positive comment I can give this film, there’s always two more negative things to say, and now we get to the worst part of the movie by far. In most renditions of “The Phantom of the Opera” Christine has a boy friend named Raoul, who stands between her and the Phantom. Well, Raoul is featured in this film as a boy friend played by Edgar Barrier, but his character is all wrong. He’s an inspector who occasionally acts like a selfish jerk, and looks like he belongs in a “Pink Panther” comedy. Also, there’s this other opera singer who’s also in love with Christine, which is ridiculous, because the subtle love triangle of the novel has now become an overly complicated love square. It’s not like this other guy is there to be a victim, in fact, he’s a main lead that’s present from beginning to end, and even gets more screen time then Raoul, the boy friend were supposed to care for. The comedy in this film is atrocious, a lot of time is wasted with overly long scenes involving Raoul childishly bickering with the opera singer to win Christine’s hand. The movie at times feels like a completely different film, like a pore slapstick/ romantic comedy. It’s as if the writers forgot about the phantom, and through him into the plot at last second.
The passing in this movie is also a complete mess, some scenes drag, and are very dull, while others scenes come off as rushed, this is most evident during the climax. Of course we get the classic scene with the phantom dropping the chandelier during a live performance, but it’s so short and so rushed that we can’t savor any excitement. Then when Christine is kidnapped and taken into the lair of the Phantom, her two boyfriends immediately come to her rescue, and then a completely random cave-in collapses the phantoms lair, and gives our three hero’s a thrilling escape. I’m not joking, a random cave-in conveniently takes out the bad guy, and the whole climax is wrapped up in about five minutes. Now there is one cool moment when we see the Phantoms mask amongst the rebel, with his violin by its side, that would have been a strong note to end everything on, but unfortunately we have an epilogue. Christine turns down both of her boyfriends to pursue her singing carrier, leaving Raoul and the other guy to have another stupid comedy scene together, and everything ends on the lowest note you could possibly end this movie on.
The movies biggest problem is that it looms in the shadows of so many other superior versions of this story. Like I said earlier, the 1925 silent film “The Phantom of the Opera” is considered the immortal classic, and it doesn't stop there either. In 1962, Hammer studios released a remake of “The Phantom of the Opera”, and I actually saw this version first. While the production wasn’t quiet as big, I actually fond this to be a far superior movie with better characters, and far more mystery surrounding the Phantom. Once Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical rendition of “The Phantom of the Opera” hit the stage in 1986, everything changed. It was such a hit that people began to associate the character completely with the theater and music, forgetting about its horror movie roots. I doubt that you’ll ever see Dracula or Frankenstein ever go through a change as big or as ground breaking as what happened to The Phantom of the Opera.
In 1989, there was yet another remake of “The Phantom of the Opera”, but this time it really tried to put the horror back into the character and the series. Robert Englund, famous for playing Freddy Krueger in “The Nightmare on Elm Street” also played the Phantom in movie. This version was very different from the other versions and far darker, with lots of gore, reincarnated spirits, demonic elements, and even odd things like time travel and the devil are featured. While I honestly liked this film on some level, it was just such a drastic change from the original, as well as a financial and critical failure, so it didn’t do the character any good. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical then made its transition to the big screen with a motion picture in 2004 starring Gerard Butler as the Phantom. While it wasn’t a critical hit, it was still successful, and has gained plenty of fans. I’ve actually grown to like this one a lot over the years, and it proves again that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical is the classic version of “The Phantom of the Opera”, even more classic then either of the original horror movies.
Overall, the 1943 movie version of “The Phantom of the Opera” is not a completely terrible film, it has incredible sets, its shot very well, the female lead is terrific, and there’s just enough excitement to hold your attention for a single viewing. Having said that, it is still the weakest of the eight Universal Classic monster movies, the villain just isn’t as interesting or as exciting as he should be, the supporting cast is terrible, the story always feels out of focus, the comedy is awful, and there’s so many other better versions of “The Phantom of the Opera” that are worth watching instead.
I give the 1943 movie “The Phantom of the Opera” 2 stars out of 5.
NEXT TIME: Watch where you go swimming because the last of the Universal monsters comes from dark waters.