Phantom of the Opera, The (1989, DVD)

To just about everyone on this freakin’ planet he’s the tongue-flappin’, razor fingered cultural icon Freddy Krueger. It’s a hard rep to shake with seven Nightmare installments, a television series and a versus film tucked under his soiled fedora, so you can’t blame actor Robert Englund for trying to skirt the crispy child molester persona from time to time. And try he has with stints in Urban Legend, Killer Tongue (where his rumored “friction” with co-star Doug Bradley was just that: a rumor) and Night Terrors as the Marqui De Sade. But prior to getting all wiggy for that Tobe Hooper film he slid beneath some extensive makeup for an opportunistic, semi-trashy, Faustian period piece that struts around with a fair amount of production gloss under the direction of Halloween 4‘s Dwight Little (who’d later go on to direct the serpentine sucker Anacondas: Something About Some Flower).

Taking a stale cracker of an idea and trying to moisten it up with blood is, in a nutshell, the driving motivation behind this Phantom which begins in modern day New York with an aspiring singer, Christine (the satin-voiced Jill Schoelen), hitting the theatrical pay dirt when she and her friend (played by a pre-SNL Molly Shannon) find the original music notes for Erik Destler’s Don Juan Triumphant. Mr. Destler (Englund) was, in his day, a maniacal composer who sold his soul to the devil so that the masses would dig on his work. But ol’ Scratch made sure Destler was left hideously disfigured (with some supernatural advantages too). And so we’re whisked back in time (for a huge flashback, baby!) just to see how much of a bad-ass this Destler was.

Turns out he’s a bit of a pussycat when it comes to Christine (Schoelen again, except a different incarnation of her modern-day character and, oh, nevermind), an American understudy looking for her big break in a London opera house. And when he’s not lurking in the shadows as the legendary “phantom,” Destler’s mentoring and falling (hard) for Christine. On the opening night of a new opera the body count begins, starting with a skinned alive stage hand found by the show’s leading lady who, in turn, loses her voice forcing the producers to push Christine into the open role. From there on out it looks like its gonna be all tea and biscuits for the ingenue. However, Destler’s bloodlust and jonesin’ for Christine sort’ve put a kink in any career plans she had for herself. Anyone who appears to be a roadblock between the writer and his muse is either beheaded or gutted and when Christine comes around to realizing that her guardian angel is one screwed up dude, she wants no part of him. What an ice queen.

Phantom takes itself pretty seriously and plays out with a straight face, never teetering on some ledge of pretentious bullshit and always remaining focused on its principal characters, not the lavish (however impressive) production design. Along the way to its bland cat-and-mouse finale the film does take a few appreciated and sly sidesteps outside of the tolerable melodrama to revel in some messy killing business that owes its effectiveness to FX man Kevin Yagher. Purists might balk at the idea of a little gore staining the reputation of Gaston Laroux’s material (or, depending on who you talk to, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s). But you know what? I’d slap them with a white glove and demand a duel in defense of it all! A great deal of the “icky cool factor” also comes from the Phantom makeup which doesn’t get points for originality – although it looks like some L.A. surgeon’s hack job on a transexual – but Englund, a master of his craft in the genre, dominates, and I mean dominates, every scene he’s in with a healthy, impassioned performance. Too bad the writers thought it’d be ultra-keen to equip the Phantom with a few one-liners to remind you this is a film of the late-‘80s. If you have to find a reason to see this Phantom, he’s it, though. Check it out anyway if you’re in no mood for a classic Phantom of the Opera film (how can you deny Chaney anyway, you insufferable bastard?) or otherwise settle for a certain Argento comedy that goes by the same name.

MGM’s disc presentation, likely released in time to ride the hype of Warner Bros.’ cinematic adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s play, is a no-frills effort with a solid, deep stereo surround track. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is a clean one with rich colors and only a slightly washed out look in moments where the action shifts underground to the Phantom’s lair. The disc also includes a theatrical trailer.

The Phantom of the Opera (1989)
(MGM Home Entertainment)
Directed by Dwight H. Little
Starring Robert Englund, Jill Schoelen, Bill Nighy, Terence Harvey

Special Features

3 out of 5

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Jon Condit

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