Written by: Gaston Leroux (novel), Gerry O'Hara (screenplay), Duke Sandefur (screenplay)
Directed by: Dwight Little
Starring: Robert Englund, Jill Schoelen, and Bill Nighy
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"You're a thing from hell."
"And you, sir, are hellbound!"
"And you, sir, are hellbound!"
Here’s the flip side of the Robert Englund coin: once upon a time, it was exciting (not to mention novel) to see him in movies that allowed him to wander from Elm Street. By 1989, that had become increasingly difficult, what with Englund having appeared as Freddy Krueger in three films and a television series during a three-year stretch that all but cemented his typecasting. Even when Phantom of the Opera presented an opportunity for him to leave familiar confines, he didn’t have to stray very far. Ostensibly, Dwight Little’s film is the umpteenth adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel; in reality, it’s one or two streets removed from Englund’s most infamous haunt and finds itself in the familiar trappings of slasher suburbia: ghoulish make-up, graphic violence, a nubile woman in peril. Just another day at the office for Englund, or so it would seem.
Granted, few (if any) Leroux adaptations feature the time-hopping frame story found here: initially set in modern day Manhattan, Phantom introduces Christine Day (Jill Schoelen), an aspiring opera singer set to audition for the latest big show in town. In her research for material, she and a friend (Molly Shannon) stumble upon some long-lost sheet music by obscure composer Erik Destler (Englund). While performing during the audition, a freak accident knocks Christine unconscious, and she inexplicably awakens in 19th century London, where she finds herself in the same position as her 20th century counterpart. This Christine, however, has an obsessive admirer lurking in the shadows, hell-bent on enabling her rise to fame, critics and more accomplished actors be damned.
It’s Erik Destler, of course, and so Phantom of the Opera becomes a familiar vehicle for Englund, who spends the film accessorizing mangled flesh with cornball one-liners. In a transparent attempt at transporting Freddy to the Opera, the turn channels the Springwood Slasher in more ways than one: not only does Englund often imagine Erik as a demonic clown prince, but he’s also rejoined by definitive Krueger make-up artist Kevin Yagher. The phantom’s grotesque disfigurement is clearly inspired by Yagher’s previous work, though various scenes of Erik poking and prodding at his fleshy façade make the effects to feel gorier and grosser here. Where Freddy Kruger delights in his pizza-faced visage, Erik is tortured by his, and both the hideous make-up work and Englund’s performance reflect that.
When he’s not busy carving up victims, he’s brooding over a Faustian fate that saw him trade his face for fame, so Englund has a chance to delve into his classical training as such a tortured character. His Erik is definitely in the tradition in that he mistakes creepy overtures for romantic gestures. When he brings Christine to his lair (which doubles as a shrine for her), it feels like a comic book aficionado bringing a girl home and showing him his collection. He somehow expects this to not send Christine fleeing for the authorities. Erik is probably a Men’s Right Activist icon, come to think of it. Englund at least clues in on this: his Erik is exceptionally broad and cartoonish once he's unleashed, even when the modern-day framing device reincarnates him as an artsy Yuppie.
Until that time-bending point, Phantom of the Opera cuts right to the slashery bone of Leroux’s novel. With Dwight Little only a few months removed from Halloween 4, it feels like more blood-letting exercise for the director, as if he couldn’t get enough of slaughtering hapless victims with Michael Myers. Thank goodness for that because Phantom is a delightful gore showcase set amidst an operatic backdrop teeming with lush sets and costumes, with a masquerade sequence (where Erik dresses as the Red Death) proving to be particularly splendid. Little seamlessly stitches the baroque production design of previous adaptations with a contemporary grisliness that demands flayed bodies and blood-spattered corpses. Even given how exhausted audiences must have been by slashers at this point, this one impressively couches the proceedings in a lurid period drama—it’s just as much a Jack the Ripper tale as it is a Phantom movie.
Little is one of those talents who never quite cashed in on the early potential of his strong genre work—in another timeline, perhaps, he became America’s own Renny Harlin. Of all his early efforts, Phantom is arguably the strongest, or at least the most unsung. Its reputation is understandable: on the surface, it looks like a typical 80s slasher playing dress-up, with one of the genre’s established (yet similarly unsung) Scream Queens in Schoelen. Peeling away that facade reveals a strikingly directed splatter movie with some appreciable delusions of grandeur, from its big, time-spanning narrative to Misha Segal’s sweeping score. Phantom of the Opera is a magnificent production filmed under the auspices of producer Menaham Golam, an obviously shrewd businessman who knew exactly how to market the film: both the poster and VHS box art highlight Englund’s turn as Freddy and provide a glimpse of the actor’s scarred, fedora-topped face. “An all new nightmare!” it boldly proclaims, knowingly suckering in the type of person who would fall prey to such tactics (read: my childhood self, who could not resist).
Scream Factory has retained that art for a Blu-ray release that upgrades the old MGM DVD to a pristine HD transfer and two DTS-MA audio options. In addition to the film’s trailer, it adds a newly recorded commentary with Englund and Little, plus “Behind the Mask,” a 35-minute retrospective featuring interviews from its cast and crew. It’s an impressive round-up of the film’s director, stars, composer, screenwriter, and effects department (which also boasted maestro John Carl Buechler, who appears here). Englund is an especially gregarious highlight, as he really plays up Little’s contributions, going so far as to declare many thought he would become “the next Spielberg.”
While that obviously didn’t happen, Phantom of the Opera did meet with an undue fate; bad timing and a weird coincidence dictates that it’s not even the weirdest Phantom take from 1989, and its superficial familiarity belies its weirdness in the first place. It’s stuck somewhere between being a legitimate oddity and a logical, commercial thoroughfare running through Elm Street, an unexpectedly effective sweet spot for late 80s splatter. Buy it!
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