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‘Phantom of the Opera: The Motion Picture’ (1989) is an oft forgotten, but no less formidable film version of the classic tale

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The Phantom of the Opera: The Motion Picture

Written by Gerry O’Hara and Duke Sandefur

Directed by Dwight H. Little

United States, 1989

Nearly 30 years went by since the 1962 Hammer Films production of The Phantom of the Opera until the ghoulish fiend made his way back onto the silver screen. An interesting turning point for the property, if it can be described as such, came in 1986, when arguably the most popular interpretation of the story ever graced not the movie theatres but rather the opera houses. Andrew Lloyd Weber’s sensational stage adaptation was all the craze in the 1980s and is still recognized as a tremendous success and achievement today. As such, it was only natural that filmmakers would want to pounce on the popularity of the title and produce yet another version, to say nothing of the fact that the rights had gone into the public domain by 1989. Enter producer Menahem Golan, veteran horror director Dwight H. Little and horror movie icon Robert Englund to collaborate for the aptly subtitled The Motion Picture.

It is present day New York and young singer Christine Day (Jill Schoelen) is excitedly preparing for an upcoming audition for a big opera that will soon enter production. She and a friend (Molly Shannon of SNL fame) stumble on a mysterious but beautiful piece of music written by one Erik Destler, a name that rings bells for Christine without her being able to quite place where she first heard it. When auditioning, a careless accident knocks Jill unconscious, sending her mind back to turn of the century London where she is a supporting singer in an adaptation of Faust. The opera house managers are the greedy Martin Barton (Bill Nighy) and romantically inclined Richard Dutton (Alex Hyde-White), with whom Christine has built a serious relationship. Whereas the pompous Carlotta (Stephanie Lawrence) is currently the star of the production, there is a shadowy figure (Robert Englund) that envisions a different casting for the show. Christine is the one that should be highlighted, and he is willing to go to great lengths to ensure just that, including murder!

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Director Dwight H. Little’s Phantom is one of the more particular film interpretations around. For one, it carries with it a signs of the typical 1980s lower budget horror movie aesthetic. It no ways is it fair to claim that the film looks cheap per say, but suffice to argue that the filmmakers pull off a lot with what, at times, evidently suggests they were not operating with gargantuan funds. Additionally, the movie’s pacing in the early going is a little bit unorthodox insofar as it takes just about 20 minutes to accomplish oodles of set-up. Recalling the 1943 Universal Studios production, that cinematic translation uses up an enormous amount of running time to establish the Phantom’s backstory in order to make him as tragic a figure as possible. The 1989 effort does the opposite, communicating barrels of information in as quick a manner as possible, from character introductions to critical plot points. A harsher way of describing the opening segment would be to say that it is breathtaking, but not exactly in the positive sense.

For that matter, the first ten minutes approximately deserve special mention given that they develop a slant of the legendary tale that no one has ever dreamed of tackling, that being time travel, or rather the potential timelessness of the love tragedy. When the film opens with a panoramic shot of the twinkling Manhattan skyscraping landscape at night, the viewer immediately understands they are not going to get what they expected. In all honesty, the set-up is very, very strange and will certainly have several unsuspecting viewers wonder what in the world the director is aiming for. In a nutshell, this Phantom gets off to somewhat of a rocky start. Alarm bells are undoubtedly ringing, and cries of the filmmakers tarnishing the beautifully tragic and iconic love tale are being shouted at the top of people’s lungs.

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It is precisely following the challenging set-up when the movie’s qualities begin to creep up on the viewer. By the final frame, Phantom of the Opera: The Motion Picture (unsurprisingly titled as such in order to distance it from the immensely popular Webber operatic production) ends up being a very entertaining and clever interpretation. Director Little and company should be awarded with considerable credit for creating a rousing, grisly affair that also embraces the incredibly dark love angle that a proper telling of the story deserves. The film is as poignant as it is a fitting release amongst the slew of slasher films that ran amok at the box office during the decade of the 1980s. Once the dust settles following the rush of information, the proceedings go along smoothly, building up exquisitely to a finale in old London that works wonders and, most of all, actually pays off the modern Manhattan bookend.

Considering the unstoppable popularity of gory horror films at the time as well as the more permissive amounts of said gore in film in the 80s, it comes as little surprise that Phantom occasionally opts for some shocking imagery. In the documentary featured on the Scream Factory blu-ray disc, Dwight H. Little explains how they wanted to do their own Hammer style production. Their efforts bear fruit, with some deaths really going much further than any previous film adaptations had as far as graphic violence is concerned. Beheadings, victims burned alive, skinned victims shown on screen before and after the act, director Little and the effects team have a ball with the killings. For horror aficionados that enjoy their scary tales with a few more buckets of blood, this is unquestionably the Phantom of the Opera movie they should seek out.

But what is good skin crawling gore without a proper story? Thankfully, the core of the Phantom tale is kept in tact, its tragedy in full effect and its characters brilliantly developed. The film does an excellent job at developing the eponymous miscreant’s obsession with having his work adored the world over, both with regards to his written music (the same piece Christine and her friend discover at the start of the film in modern day) and his quest to have Christine’s voice heard and admired. He is the quintessential brilliant if insane artist, played with a dialed balance between enviable artistic drive and horrifying malevolence by a legend in his own right, Robert Englund. By this time Englund was enjoying fantastic success as Freddy Krueger from the Elm Street films and saw the invitation to portray the Phantom as an opportunity to continue his career as a very physical actor with an identifiable voice with a different spin. Englund obviously knew how to play evil quite well and his talents serve the role brilliantly. Jill Schoelen is a solid Christine, capable of playing the young, wide-eyed star whose name is on every one’s lips while adding heart and honesty into the performance. She is a believable, touching Christine, and even though she is not as strong an actress as Heather Sears in the Hammer Films version, she definitely holds her own. Alex Hyde-White can be mentioned in the same breath as Schoelen as the co-leading man that, by the nature of the role, has to demonstrate a softer, romantic side whilst showing bravery in the face of danger. Two of the supporting roles for which the actors evidently relished sinking their teeth into are Bill Nighy and Terence Harney. Both inhabit very different roles due to what the characters are after, one being an honest, hard working detective and the other a duplicitous, money-minded producer, but each is awarded a role that requires a certain pomposity. Nighy and Harvery are both more than up for the task.

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By the time the film closes, a sense of relief might pass over the viewer. At the outset it honesty does not feel as if director Little and the crew are entirely sure how to make a noteworthy, distinct Phantom adaptation. The first half of the framing device is just plain odd and a potentially intimidating amount of exposition is bludgeoned very rapidly. Yet, as the second act commences, the film finds its groove very nicely, only getting better as it develops. Even the bizarre framing device earns its raison d’être. The film was sadly a disappointment at the box office, which is a bit surprising considering the popularity of the opera production that came out at the time. One would think that a studio beating the iron while it was truly piping hot would see them reap important financial rewards. Alas, the 1989 film Phantom bears little resemblance to its 1986 operatic counterpart, and this fact probably caught the first movie going crowds off guard, subsequently causing poor word of mouth. The truth of the matter is that, with a little bit of patience, the movie is quite solid on the whole and offers some fresh ideas (and an excellent score courtesy of Misha Segal). Freddy is nowhere to be found, but in his place is a monster just as if not more terrifying, deserving of some attention from horror hounds.

-Edgar Chaput


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