The Phantom of the Opera (1962)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: August 11th, 2020
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
By 1962, Hammer Films as we know it was just starting to come into focus. The studio had experienced enough success with their horror output that they knew this was its meal ticket but hadn’t quite become a franchise filmmaking horror factory. Both Dracula and Frankenstein had made maiden voyages with one sequel apiece, but it would still be a few years before they would flourish into full-fledged series. In the absence of these staples, Hammer did resort to a familiar tactic of turning to the monsters Universal popularized with the likes of Curse of the Werewolf and The Phantom of the Opera. And while the former wasn’t an explicit remake of Universal’s The Wolf Man, the latter does take cues from the studio’s 1943 take on Gaston Leroux’s seminal novel. Like that Claude Rains vehicle, it seeks to turn its titular phantom into a more tragic, sympathetic figure, making this sort of a quintessential Hammer experience: the skeletal outline of the story remains intact, but this The Phantom of the Opera is very much its own ornate thing.
In this one, the Phantom (Herbert Lom) dwells in the bowels of a Victorian London opera house, droning away on an organ in a lair as the River Thames slithers by. His presence haunts the place, much to the chagrin of Lord Ambrose D’Arcy (Michael Gough), the chief playwright whose sneering contempt and underhanded nature immediately mark him as the villain of the piece. The Phantom has become a thorn in his side: performers whisper about hearing mysterious voices, while one set of box seats remains unoccupied due to unexplained disturbances. The “haunting” culminates with the grisly death of a stagehand whose body dangles from a noose in the middle of a performance, leading to the opera’s star singer to quit on the spot. With his show now postponed, Ambrose seeks a replacement, eventually finding it in Christine Charles (Heather Sears), young naive singer who doesn’t quite grasp Ambrose’s ulterior--and much more unseemly--motives in casting her. Not only does the Phantom recognize Ambrose’s lecherous advances, but so too does producer Harry Hunter (Edward de Souza), whose attempt to shield the girl from Ambrose blossoms into a romance, touching off a mess of drama.
It’s easy to see how this take on the Phantom slightly loses its way. The script wanders off on several tangents, essentially leaving its title character confined to the shadows for much of the runtime. Of course, that makes sense--he is a phantom, after all. However, what we’re left with in the interim--the budding romance between Christine and Harry, Ambrose’s increasingly cantankerous treatment of his cast and crew--doesn’t quite have the spark of the Phantom’s quest for revenge, which eventually comes into focus with an extended flashback sequence. The heat of the story here rests in the revelation that Ambrose is responsible for the Phantom’s fall from grace, meaning his haunting here is less a story of tragic unrequited love and more a story of vengeance. The Phantom does have a fascination with Christine, but his motivation there mostly rests in his desire to see his work performed as he envisioned it: without D’arcy’s conniving, domineering face looming in the front row, taking unearned credit for the Phantom’s work.
With so much going on, the result is a bit of a disjointed experience. While Sears and de Souza make for a perfectly nice couple, you can’t help but be intrigued by the weirdo Phantom flitting about the margins of the movie. Anthony Hinds’s script does its best to intertwine their romance with their investigation into the Phantom’s presence, but the disparate threads never quite come together in satisfying fashion. The Phantom of the Opera almost feels like it’s serving two masters: all at once, it seeks to be an almost subversive take presenting its title character as a completely sympathetic figure who simply wants his life’s work respected, all while delivering the sort of grisly carnage expected from a Hammer production. Blending the romantic and the macabre is faithful to the source material--it’s just that the former tends to overwhelm to the point that the latter almost feels extraneous. In fact, the script introduces an inexplicable dwarf (Ian Wilson) who rescues the Phantom and carries out all of the film’s violence for no clear reason. An entire aside sees the dwarf butcher an innocent rat-catcher (Patrick Troughton) apropos of nothing else other than giving Harry and Christine a reason to be suspicious of the haunting.
Even still, the film wobbles on sturdily enough on this rickety frame until the climax, when the Phantom’s much-anticipated confrontation with D’Arcy builds to a boil before quickly dissipating into an anticlimax. Gough spends the entire film perfectly depicting D’arcy as an infuriatingly grotesque man who wields his power and influence to make undue advances towards women, a subplot that sadly only resonates even more loudly today than it did 60 years ago. You don’t just love to hate this guy: you actively crave the moment he’ll finally receive his comeuppance at the Phantom’s hands. What a shame it is, then, that our last glimpse of him here simply finds him shrieking in horror as he flees the Phantom’s sight, never to be seen again.
You could make the argument that this is fine, particularly when the film’s real triumphant moment is the Phantom looking on, overcome by emotion as Christine performs his masterpiece. Tears stream down his face during a sublime moment before expectations kick in, undermining the subversion: despite the obvious straying from Leroux’s tale, this one also feels compelled to climax with the famous chandelier sequence, here instigated when a random stagehand spots the dwarf and chases him into the rafters, leading to a sort of jumbled greatest hits reprisal: the dwarf dangles from the chandelier and the Phantom dramatically unmasks before meeting a tragic end in an effort to save Christine’s life. I’m always left wishing this take went all the way with its deviations from the original story because this ending feels dictated by tradition more than anything.
These stumbles don’t completely undermine The Phantom of the Opera. As always, director Terence Fisher’s engaging, dynamic vision and Hammer’s production values are too powerful a combination to yield anything less than decent. This was one of the studio’s more impressively staged productions at the time, one that required hordes of extras and lavish opera scenes. In keeping with previous Phantom efforts, it simply feels like a big, grandiose spectacle, and Hammer was the standard bearer at bringing such visions to the screen on a tight budget. The Phantom’s lair is also one of the studio’s all-time great sets: there’s an almost otherworldly quality to it that taps into the fantastical plane these Hammer films typically reach. Like so many of their productions, The Phantom of the Opera is as elegant as it is lurid, its seedy, urban grime awash in a baroque, vivid production design that creates the impression of a warped fairy tale.
Lom is also marvelous as the Phantom. Despite being hidden behind a mask for most of the film, he effortlessly realizes the Phantom as a tragic figure. His eyes seem weighed down by a certain sadness, his baritone voice tinged with the melancholy notes of a wayward soul. He has a commanding presence, one that dwells in the shadows of tragedy and terror all at once. His Phantom is quite unlike the vast majority of Hammer’s “monsters,” which is one of many reasons this one endures as an oddball entry from a studio that eventually became synonymous with formula. I’ve said many times that such a reductive reading of Hammer is misguided and unfair, and The Phantom of the Opera is a testament to that. Only the studio’s inspiration to keep mining profitable titles and the familiar ending can be said to be formulaic here; otherwise, this is one of Hammer’s bolder efforts. If it wobbles, it only does so because it dares to go out on a limb in the first place.
Sometimes I can’t help but think if The Phantom of the Opera’s home video treatment for the past 15 years hasn’t colored its reputation in some way. Where so many of Hammer’s titles benefited from respectable Anchor Bay releases, this one was unceremoniously dumped into a notoriously glitchy DVD collection alongside some of the studio’s less prominent output (with the notable exception of Brides of Dracula and Evil of Frankenstein). Universal followed suit on Blu-ray, once again bunching together the same movies with no extras, further creating the impression that these films weren’t necessarily worthy of more. That shouldn’t be the case any longer for Phantom, as Scream Factory has released one of its most impressive Hammer editions yet. Not only does this Collector's Edition feature a nicely restored, remastered transfer in two different aspect ratios (1.85 & 1.66), but it also boasts an extended television version of the film.
There’s also a ton of extras, including a pair of audio commentaries, with Troy Howarth and Nathaniel Thompson commenting on the 1.85 framing, while Steve Haberman and Consantnie Nasr take over for the 1.66 framing. A slew of interviews also makes for a nice retrospective on both the film in particular and some of the Hammer lore surrounding it. “The Making of The Phantom of the Opera'' is a centerpiece mini-doc narrated by de Souza and featuring appearances from Richard Golen and Alan Lavendar. It provides some nice context for the film’s production, including the oft-repeated anecdote that Cary Grant actually hatched the project with Anthony Hinds until the legendary actor’s agent nixed the idea, leaving the role to eventually fall to Lom.
“The Men Who Made Hammer: Anthony Hinds” touches on the indomitable producer, as longtime horror journalist Richard Klemensen recounts his own history with Hinds and explains why he was so instrumental in Hammer’s success. Film historian and novelist Courtney Joyner is the main participant of “Herbert Lom: The Soul Behind the Mask,” another nice retrospective that details the actor’s career in general before focusing on his performance in Phantom. David Huckvale slides behind a piano for “Phantom Triumphant: Edwin Astley and Hammer’s Horror Opera,” a brief piece that discusses the composer’s musical contributions. Not only does he walk viewers through the notes and chord progressions of Astley’s original work, but he also breaks down Bach’s oft-used “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” and explains why it’s become such a horror staple. Finally, effects artist Brian Johnson appears for a few minutes to discuss his brief recollections about the film’s production, including some nice anecdotes involving Fisher himself. A still gallery and a trailer round out the extras, and Scream has once again provided reversible cover art allowing collector’s to restore the original promo art Universal commissioned for the film’s U.S. release.
Even if The Phantom of the Opera isn’t among my absolute favorite Hammer horrors, Scream’s treatment of it is absolutely top notch. The label has been a little inconsistent with these Hammer releases in terms of supplements (particularly newly produced ones), but this is an exemplary edition. The past few years have been an embarrassment of riches for Hammer aficionados, and I doubt Scream is done. Now that half of that old Universal collection has been upgraded (Phantom arrives on the heels of Evil of Frankenstein, Curse of the Werewolf, and Kiss of the Vampire), one has to think the rest--including crown jewel Brides of Dracula--are inevitable.
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