Written by John Elder
Directed by Terence Fisher
Hammer Film Productions is one of the oldest, most respected film studios to ever earn significant popularity. Founded in 1934 in England, the production company earned an outstanding sequence of success in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s by re-appropriating several well known horror stories like The Mummy and Dracula, as well as concocting several original concepts. Even in 2015, long after the studio’s heyday, cinephiles continue to look back at and appreciate the work Hammer put out during those three illustrious decades. Being such specialists in breathing new life into old horror tales, it would only seem befitting that they would try their hand at a new adaptation of French author Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera novel.
Transplanting the action over to home soil in London, this iteration of The Phantom of the Opera shares the adventures of Harry Hunter (Edward De Souza), director at the London Opera House, Christine Charles (Heather Sears), a newcomer to the cast of singers and rising star, and Lord Ambrose D’Arcy (Michael Gough), the greedy, despicable owner of the institution. Harry is a charming, affable but no less intelligent and musically gifted bachelor trying to produce the best shows possible. Suffice to say, he and Lord Ambrose do not get along at all, their personalities and visions of how to run things regularly clashing, with poor manager Lattimer (Thorley Walters) always caught in the middle of the ruckus. There is another figure, however, that disapproves of Lord Ambrose’s artistic decisions, such as the new lead signer signed on to play the lead role in a production of Joan of Arc. This shadow (Herbert Lom), this specter, haunts and taunts the opera house in grisly fashion, sending his mute companion dwarf (Ian Wilson) to kill off people involved in the production. The message is clear: Christine is to be the star of the show and no one else. Harry, having taken a liking to the new starlet, risks his career and possibly his life in trying to unravel the horrific mystery of the phantom of the opera.
One of the major qualities one notices about director Terence Fisher’s Phantom is that it is distinctly English. There is no attempt to produce an English-language version of the famous doomed love story set in its original locale of Paris. Rather, the filmmakers opt to transplant the tragedy to the Opera House, streets and underground of dark and gloomy Victorian London. Shillings are mentioned instead of francs, and the cockney accents can be quite heavy at times (thankfully those speaking are limited predominantly to tertiary characters with minimal screentime). While some may argue that the shift is cosmetic, it accomplishes two things. First, it is very much in line with Hammer Film Productions’ filmmaking process of the era, which was a very English film studio that made very English films with very English talent. Second, a Phantom of the Opera story transpiring in London means that the titular monster gets to join in on the fun of terrorizing the English with iconic villains the likes of Jack the Ripper and Count Dracula. As such, the relocation ends up being quite organic instead of a stark, distracting contrast.
This Phantom proves a refreshingly energetic production. Under Terence Fisher’s direction and some brilliantly lit set and costume design, the film first half is impressively tense, perfectly fitting in with the Hammer tradition of producing skin crawling movies. The first sequence alone, which introduces the various players to the viewer, is tinged with an unmistakable sense of dark foreboding as an unseen shape starts toying around with lights and employees as everyone prepares for the spectacle about to commence in the next few minutes. The editing is sharp and on point, accentuating the danger percolating underneath the surface that nobody is aware of save the audience, culminating in a graphic hanging that sends shockwaves through the screen, straight to the vulnerable viewer. Put simply, this 1962 version has the best introductory scene for a Phantom film and a great opening sequence, period.
From there the movie rarely lets up. It feels as though everyone is on the same page to make the best cinematic interpretation of the famed horror story. The energy is infectious, delicious, and exactly what a horror movie fan would want out of an adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s crowning literary achievement. Danger is constantly felt whenever a character returns to their office or dressing room because the film has so clearly established that this Phantom knows how to effectively go about his business of terrorizing and even murdering those that stand in is way of lifting Christine’s career.
Fisher’s film also sports an extraordinarily game cast, with nary a faux pas in sight. Edward De Souza is everything the script says his character is, a likeable and lively personality whose place could only ever be in an opera house as its artistic maestro. Heather Sears is also one of the better leading ladies any of the adaptations have had. There is a cute innocence about her Christine Charles that Sears sells effortlessly, thus making the viewer really want her to remain free of the phantom’s clutches. Michael Gough, who many know as Alfred Pennyworth in the Batman films released from 1989 to 1997, is chewing up his lines as the irritatingly slimy owner. His sense of self-entitlement is risible to say the least, and his conspicuous desire to bed the delightful Christine makes him all the more easy to root against. Last but not least is Herbert Lom, whom of course remains hidden behind the famous mask for the majority of the picture until some of his character’s backstory is revealed in the latter stages. Acting when one’s facial gesture are kept from view means that one’s voice becomes all the more important. Lom is an amazing sounding Phantom, balancing genuine menace with a detectable fatigue one would expect from an ill person that spends their life living in sewage. It isn’t a startlingly powerful voice, but a sickly evil one. Even Ian Wilson, despite never uttering a word, puts in a memorable performance as the menacing, impish dwarf that slaves under his master’s bidding.
So what could sour the experience when almost everything is going so swimmingly? Oddly, and certainly frustratingly, it is the final 15 to 20 minutes that, while not undermining the entire experience, really take it down a few notches. Terence Fisher and screenwriter John Elder have a vastly different goal in mind with their Phantom, and divulging too much information would ruin the experience for unsuspecting viewers, especially those that might end up actually loving the end game the filmmakers have in store for their antagonist. While trying to tip toe around some of the crucial details, suffice to say this Phantom ends up not being nearly as scary as previous versions, but what makes it so odd is that the build up, ironically, made him very frightening. The pay off never coalesces with the set up as much as it should and, because said set-up is so excellent, the film sadly ends with its tail sagging between its legs.
It is a very unfortunate case in which a weak conclusion affects the entire film. One would still be remiss to completely dismiss this film version however. For starters, as previously argued, a lot of what comes before the climax is sumptuous in its Victorian era gloom and doom. Second, there very well may be fans out there that believe the ending does the story justice. Ultimately, this Phantom of the Opera still comes recommended, although perhaps prepare oneself to not like what lies behind the mask, no pun intended.