Tuesday, 11 March 2014


Of all the films directed by Terence Fisher, Phantom of the Opera, apart from being one of the most controversial, comes closest to fulfilling his desire to helm a love story in the Frank Borzage mold. Wistful, delicate and almost entirely devoid of 'horror', the film was a critical and financial flop in 1962 and it remains hotly debated to this day. Fisher enthusiasts tend to embrace it as one of the director's best films, while others deride it as tedious. Reportedly developed as a vehicle for Cary Grant (though sources vary on what role he was intended to play – it seems unlikely that they would have stuck the biggest star they ever netted behind a mask, so he likely was intended to play the role of the hero), this unusually genteel adaptation of Gaston Leroux's novella works very well as a drama and less persuasively as a horror picture. Compared to other versions of the story, it is neither the most faithful nor is it the most far-afield of the original concept. I would argue that it is, ultimately, the best film as a whole out of the whole slew of filmic adaptations, but I would be in the minority on that point.

The film lacks the memorable Phantom makeup of Lon Chaney in the 1925 silent version, but the point of Fisher's take on the story is that the Phantom isn't a villain to be despised — he's a sympathetic, misunderstood and abused figure. In order to remove all the horrific deeds from the character, screenwriter Hinds devised a dwarf sidekick (Ian Wilson) to do all the dirty work, whether it be accidentally breaking the chandelier that plays a role in the finale or stabbing a rat-catcher (The Omen’s Patrick Troughton) in the eye.

The few flashes of horror do feel a trifle grafted on, notably the sequence with the rat-catcher. There is no real motivation for this action, making the dwarf character seem more psychotic than the bulk of the narrative seems to suggest that he is. An earlier moment, with the Phantom disrupting a performance of his opera by thrusting a hanged man onto the stage, is more satisfactory but still jars with the overall tone of the film.

The most problematic aspect of the film is the Salieri-like character of Lord Ambrose, played to reptilian perfection by Michael Gough (Dracula). The problem isn't with Gough, who is superb, but with the resolution of his character — but the problem goes beyond just his character to the very end of the film itself. Having been established as a complete and utter swine who steals the Phantom's music and attempts to force his advances on Christine, he is set up as a villain of epic proportions. Yet, when the Phantom confronts him, all we get is Gough ripping the mask from his face and running off in fright. What happens then? Does he get away scot-free, and if so, why? And if he does indeed get some kind of comeuppance, what exactly is it?

Fisher and Hinds lose sight of this as the film moves rapidly to a close — the villain's fate left unresolved, the film then sets about disposing of its tragic protagonist in a somewhat hasty manner. As Christine performs the Phantom's masterpiece to an appreciative audience, Fisher includes one of his trademark sensitive touches — a close-up of the Phantom's eye as tears stream down his cheek. However, the dwarf accidentally breaks the chandelier and the Phantom leaps to save Christine from being crushed, only to be crushed himself. All this happens so quickly and suddenly, with the Phantom taking time to rather pointlessly remove his mask so that we can get a perfunctory look at his scars (a decent makeup job from Roy Ashton).

So much of the film is so good and so sensitively handled, and yet Fisher and Hinds really drop the ball in these last 10-15 minutes. Were they running behind schedule? Was there more material intended to go in to this section of film that they simply couldn't film? It's hard to say, but the fact remains that what could have been Fisher's masterpiece suffers as a result of such thoughtless hastiness.

Clearly designed to reach a wider audience than their earlier horror films, Phantom has impressive production values. The decision to switch the setting to the London Opera House was a practical one, and the settings and set dressings are nicely rendered throughout. Reportedly shot on a higher than usual budget, it doesn't necessarily put the earlier run of Hammer films to shame for the simple reason that Arthur Grant's cinematography isn't as impressive as Jack Asher's. Grant creates some impressive images here and there, but overall his approach is more realistic than lyrical, thus clashing somewhat with the mood Fisher is trying so hard to maintain.

While not unattractive, his lighting has a pedestrian quality to it that detracts from the mood somewhat. Edwin Astley's score is more on the money, though the Opera snippets aren't exactly high art. (In fairness, the actual music is very nice... the lyrics, however, could have benefited from some polishing.)

The cast is, once again, first rate. Herbert Lom is absolutely brilliant as the Phantom. He makes for a credibly eerie presence — there are some marvelous shots of him lurking in the shadows — but he goes beyond being a stereotypical bogeyman to become a tragic hero. Lom handles the neurotic aspects of the character without overacting and is even granted a nice flashback sequence to show the audience, approximately, what he really looks like. Certainly, Christopher Lee let it be known that he thought that he should have been cast in the part, especially as he was chomping at the bit to do some singing on screen; never mind that the Phantom doesn’t actually sing!  For whatever reason, Hammer elected to go against the grain and cast somebody without a reputation for doing horror films in the role – but did it do the film any favors commercially?  Hard to say.  It would seem that after Grant dropped out of the project they simply sought to find somebody "fresh" and free of horror connotations, perhaps in the hope of selling the film to a wider audience. Supporting Lom is a fine gallery of character actors.

Heather Sears (The Black Torment), another odd choice for a Hammer leading woman, being neither conventionally sexy or particularly curvacrous, gives a sensitive performance as Christine. She credibly conveys her character's iron will while also displaying her more vulnerable qualities. Edward DeSouza, who would go on to overact rather shamelessly in The Kiss of the Vampire, makes for a likable romantic lead, while Gough steals his scenes with ripely overplayed villainy and lechery. Fisher favorite Thorley Walters (Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed) is also on hand as Gough's meek business associate, while Michael Ripper (Plague of the Zombies), Miles Malleson (The Hound of the Baskervilles), Harold Goodwin (The Mummy) and others pop up in smaller supporting roles.

Don’t let the snarky reviews put you off, but don’t go in expecting a conventional Hammer Horror, either.  Phantom of the Opera is a key Terence Fisher film and it deserves to find a wider audience.

Review Troy Howarth
Gallery: Marcus Brooks

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