Since the publication of Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel, there’s been no shortage of adaptations. The most famous and – spoiler alert – still the best is Universal’s 1925 silent film, featuring the iconic image of an unmasked Lon Chaney in ghoulish make-up that remains one of cinema’s most enduring images. A remake soon thereafter starred Claude Rains of “The Invisible Man,” but extended scenes of operatic performances and a far more friendlier tone cause it to play like little more than a routine Technicolor musical. Still, nothing compares to the offensively dull, stupid version lensed by Italian giallo magnate Dario Argento in 1998 starring Julian Sands as an unscarred, telepathic phantom raised by rats.
So, in the late ‘50s, Britain’s Hammer Films had released their versions of Frankenstein and Dracula – “The Curse of Frankenstein” (1957) and “Horror of Dracula” (1958), respectively – after some wrangling with Universal Pictures, who, through some sorcery my limited knowledge of law cannot possibly hope to comprehend, were unsettled by Hammer’s perceived grave robbing of their iconic (and wildly successful) horror films from the 1930s. During the production of both of the aforementioned films, Universal required agreements and reassurance Hammer’s versions would not infringe on any of the elements of Universal’s films, which is something of an explanation for the weirdly pickled appearance of Hammer’s Frankenstein – it was an attempt to get as far away from Jack Pierce’s make-up as possible. By the time both “The Curse of Frankenstein” and “Horror of Dracula” did gangbusters internationally, however, Universal was happy to reach a more comprehensive agreement with Hammer.
With the characters of Universal’s stable of monsters at their beck and call, they quickly moved forward with “The Mummy,” released in 1959, “The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll” in 1960, “The Curse of the Werewolf” in 1961 and, after many years of wrangling and false starts, “The Phantom of the Opera” in 1962.
There are inherent problems with adapting a film with such an emphasis on opera; Universal’s 1943 version slogs through extended scenes of opera rehearsals and performances so much so it’s impossible to build any suspense. Moreover, unless you’ve got a skilled songwriter or composer on staff, you’d better rely on some of the classics, because whatever original libretto gets dreamt up is very, very likely to distractingly awful. This “Phantom of the Opera” does indeed have a distractingly awful “Joan of Arc” opera – it includes the use of the pejorative “Frenchie” – but mercifully limits its screen time to a relatively negligible amount.
Fittingly, Hammer changed the milieu from Paris to a London in the final years of Queen Victoria’s reign; the debut of an operatic version of “Joan of Arc” opens at the London Opera House but is quickly undone, first by a formless voice’s foreboding curse that frightens the show’s star and then by the sudden appearance of a corpse on stage, the hanged body of a stage laborer. The show’s producer, Lord Ambrose D’Arcy (Michael Gough), is furious with the disastrous opening night and the departure of his leading lady.
The production finds a new leading lady in the form of Christine Charles (Heather Sears), who rejects D’Arcy’s lecherous advances and is taken under the wing of the opera house’s strapping young director, Harry Hunter (Edward de Souza). Though D’Arcy spitefully cuts both of them from the production, this allows Harry to devote his time to unraveling the identity of the mysterious Phantom (Herbert Lom).
Beneath the London Opera House, an errant tributary of the Thames’ brackish tides flows into a subterranean chamber where the Phantom hammers out sinister songs on his towering pipe organ. It has all the Gothic trappings – a rat-like, hunchbacked minion who does all of the Phantom’s dirty work (and seems to have a propensity for eye-stabbings … charming), tattered posters frayed to near nothingness and, of course, the Cyclopean stare of the Phantom. His mask, like a mud-smear of featureless clay, conceals all but a single, burning eye along with wispy, shock-white hair and a tatterdemalion suit powdered with dirt and grime. Gone are the romantic tragedies of Chaney and Rains; Lom is a deeply, deeply embittered composer who was so betrayed by the exploitation of a decade of work, he lost his grip on reality.
Harry discovers the Phantom was once Professor Petrie, who broke into a printing shop to destroy the copies of his manuscripts he’d sold to D’Arcy and was subsequently horribly burned. Christine is abducted from her bedroom taken to the Phantom, who demands he teach how her to sing properly. Eventually, Harry shows up to save Christine, but instead a compromise – the Phantom can have Christine for a week so that he may continue her lessons and perfect her voice. All parties agree.
Months later, a new D’Arcy production is opening at the London Opera House with a new leading lady – Christine. The night of Christine’s debut, the Phantom reveals himself to a terrified D’Arcy and reminds him of his crimes. Strangely, despite Gough’s insufferably petulant characteristics, the Phantom does not hurt, threaten or assault D’Arcy in any way; this is a rare moment of restraint in narrative in general, to say nothing of the genre in which it finds itself. It’s not that I’m suggesting violence would be appropriate in that situation, and I’m certainly not bemoaning the absence of a needlessly bloody spectacle; rather, I think a fundamental element of producing objectively good narratives is to provide a deliberate sense of fulfillment by depicting the characters who have been structured to appear as an antagonist receive a degree of perceived “justice” wherein they are appropriately punished for their supposed crimes.
In other words, you have to show the bad guys get theirs. We all want desperately to be reassured heroism and rebellion beget reward while selfishness and maliciousness see only punishment; it’s a cultural thing. May seem minor, but it seems very strange considering the Phantom instead meets his end, selflessly leaping from his box to hurl Christine out from underneath a collapsing stage chandelier.
How is it the Phantom, who really seems to be an okay guy (if a little nuts) never actually killed anyone (his minion did all the work) and taught a willing Christine to sing despite his appearance – has to get the short straw here? Sure, it’s a redemptive death, but still – does he simply have to die because he’s the monster (read: he looks different)?As a character, D’Arcy’s structured to be much worse; he mistreats and abuses every character in the film and is never shown to have any redeemable value. Our logic of narrative (and especially that of the genre) demand we harvest the deliberate pleasure in seeing a character, specifically coded to be unpleasant and unlikeable, meet their end; not only is it a form of catharsis, it is an act that completes the character arc of the protagonist which, I’d argue, is almost de facto the Phantom, though Harry’s purpose as white knight foil can overshadow that for much of the film’s running time. The film acknowledges something must happen to D’Arcy, in this case, little more than a good scare. So why does it deliberately deny us a more satisfying comeuppance – again, not even necessarily a violent one – for the unabashed, uncontested villain of the piece?
I digress. Hammer’s “Phantom of the Opera” is uneven; it has a few moments of genuine atmosphere but is largely dominated by the two leading romantic roles which, unfortunately, don’t offer much style or substance. The film really comes apart in the final reel; the sudden and inexplicable death of the Phantom happens so quickly it’s utterly inexplicable. We do not see what becomes of D’Arcy nor do we see the repercussions of Petrie’s sacrifice to save his leading lady, Christine. Typical of Hammer movies – well, monster movies in general – the credits roll the very moment the monster meets his end. Normality returns and the lights come up.
“The Phantom of the Opera” supposedly went over budget, a budget that was already fat for a Hammer production. Perhaps the truncated finale was a casualty of budget constraints. Maybe it was written that way years before they began filming. Regardless, it’s poor and rather mean-spirited. Thoroughly unfulfilling, almost in a staunchly contrarian kind of way. For what it’s worth – very little, by my estimates – “The Phantom of the Opera” was a financial failure when it opened in 1962. It remains, I think, one of Hammer’s missed opportunities, particularly with a strong actor like Lom in the title role and Terence Fisher behind the camera.
Review: Ryan Baker
Images: Marcus Brooks
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