Starring Robert Englund, Molly Shannon, Jill Schoelen, Stephanie Lawrence
Directed by Dwight H. Little
Distributed by Scream Factory
Confession time: I have never liked theater. The scant few shows I have attended – one of which was a performance of “The Phantom of the Opera” at the Pantages – were well executed and marginally exciting, but there has never been a single time where I felt the urge to take in a show. This apathetic view has extended to cinematic adaptations of musicals, too, although there are unquestionably great films filled with songs.
The purpose of this preface is to explain why I’d never watched The Phantom of the Opera: The Motion Picture (1989), despite being acutely aware of it since childhood. As a young horror fan, who wouldn’t have been drawn in by that cover art? It sold the movie as “Freddy: The Musical,” after all, complete with “Freddy” in bold letters on the cover and Englund’s partially-obscured visage looking an awful lot like his signature character. I must’ve passed it a thousand times on the video shelf as a kid and always had the same thought, “Nope, not interested in a musical.”
Oh, what a youthful fool. First off, it isn’t really much of a musical at all. The Phantom’s compositions are obviously a main component of the film, but it isn’t like characters break out into song every time they have a monologue to deliver. And it’s good music, too. Misha Segal’s score has been singled out as one of the film’s strengths, deservedly so. Secondly, this is absolutely a horror movie. If Englund’s presence didn’t make that evident, the choice of Dwight H. Little (he of Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988) fame) as director and the use of Kevin Yagher and John Carl Buechler for FX work should make it crystal clear – a great deal of blood will be spilled.
Opening in present day New York City (check out that Tower Records!), Christine (Jill Schoelen) is an opera singer who wants to find something unique to sing for her upcoming audition. She and her friend Meg (Molly Shannon, in her film debut) discover a piece written by Erik Destler, a composer who they learn may have been responsible for a spate of murders in 19th century London. No matter, it’s a great song. Christine sings the piece at her audition, but before she finishes a sandbag crashes down from overhead and knocks her out. She awakens in 1881 London as an operatic understudy to La Carlotta (Stephanie Lawrence), a diva headlining “Faust”. Visions of Erik Destler begin to plague Christine, in which he tells her that only she can sing Carlotta’s parts as they should be performed. An “unfortunate accident” prevents Carlotta from going on that night, and Christine receives a standing ovation after stepping in for her.
The parallels between “Faust” and Destler’s life are then revealed, as it is shown that Destler made a deal with the Devil to ensure his music would be eternal. The catch? His face would be permanently disfigured, allowing people to love him only for his music. He’s also given superhuman strength and is seemingly immortal, so maybe not such a bad deal after all? Destler’s obsession with Christine continues to mount, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake and culminating in an attack on his underground lair in hopes of finally stopping him. Post-attack, we’re whisked back to present day New York City where Christine is waking up from her audition accident to a familiar face…
Jill Schoelen mentions in the bonus features that the film’s failure at the box office was likely due to the fact most horror fans didn’t want to see a musical any more than musical fans wanted to see a horror movie. She’s right there; many horror/comedies fail at the box office for the same reason – genre confusion and disinterest. The stage version may be most closely associated with the title, but this film version hews more to Gaston Leroux’s source novel. The only major change is of locale, from Paris to London, a decision made to give the picture a more “Hammer Studios” aesthetic. Well, that and the signature chandelier scene, which was dropped because Menahem Golan ran out of money. Golan’s name alone should have clued genre fans in to what to expect; the man built a solid career with Cannon Pictures and its hyper-violent films.
One could easily view this film as “Freddy of the Opera” thanks to Destler’s crispy-fried features being brought to life by Kevin Yagher, who handled makeup duties on three A Nightmare on Elm St. films as well as Freddy’s Nightmares (1988-1989). For most of the film Destler hides under a mask made up of the skin from his victims’ faces (he’s skilled at flaying), something he stiches onto himself periodically. When that is removed, however, he looks like Freddy Krueger with extra skin. How could he not?
It’s a shame the planned The Phantom of New York City never came together because this film ends on a sequel-setting note that could have been a worthwhile continuance. I could kick my younger self for not giving this a shot and renting it all those years ago. Thanks to strong FX work, particularly nasty kills and solid performances from horror notables, The Phantom of the Opera is an elegantly vicious retelling of a well-trodden tale. If there’s any downside here, it’s that an unrated cut couldn’t be put together. Apparently much of the gore wound up on the cutting room floor (like, you know, every horror film made around this time) and it would’ve been great to see that FX reinstated. Still, what survives is certainly worth horror fans’ time.
I don’t mind sounding like a broken record in saying Scream Factory has once again delivered a faithful, albeit unspectacular, picture for a catalog release. Maybe not all of their titles get the 2K or 4K treatment, but on the other side of the coin at least they never employ DNR or aggressive new color timing to their releases either. Phantom sports a 1.85:1 1080p image that was sourced from a clean print, free of major defects, dirt and noise. Colors are nicely saturated, especially reds. Grain is moderate and filmic, though it does spike a bit when the scene is in total darkness. As a testament to the FX work, most of the latex skin holds up rather well under the intense scrutiny of HD.
Viewers are given the option of an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround sound track or a 2.0 stereo track. Truthfully, to my ears the stereo track appeared more focused and full, while the surround track spreads itself out too thin, resulting in a weak presence and less impact. The film was mixed in Ultra Stereo, making the loss of any rear speaker effects is negligible. Dialogue sounds a bit more present in the 2.0 track as well. The film’s songs carry a decent weight, filling out the front-end assembly nicely. Subtitles are included in English.
The audio commentary track features director Dwight H. Little and star Robert Englund. These two have a great rapport, covering every necessary base including location shooting, relationships with the other actors, the picture’s tone & look and so forth. Definitely recommended if you enjoyed the film.
“Behind the Mask: The Making of The Phantom of the Opera” is a great behind-the-scenes piece that runs for just under forty minutes. Many of the film’s principals – Little, Englund, Schoelen, etc. – are on hand to discuss the film. Scream Factory has a knack for pumping out these highly informative, in-depth pieces on making a film; just about every one they’ve produced has been a perfect complement to its corresponding movie. There’s a lot of history behind this production and the anecdotes fly left & right.
The film’s theatrical trailer, TV spot, two radio spots and a still gallery round out the extra features.
- Audio commentary with director Dwight H. Little and star Robert Englund
- Behind the Mask: The Making of The Phantom of the Opera
- Theatrical trailer
- TV spots
- Radio spots
- Still gallery