I don’t know why, but I have always enjoyed the story in The Phantom of the Opera, even when I was young. There was just something about a man who was constantly going mad in his quest to get girls to notice him that mirrored my adolescence. Luckily, I never murdered anyone, but still, the parallels can be seen. If you squint. A bit. I also just deeply enjoyed the settings and the pageantry that was present in the story. Today, most monsters are the result of editing and reinterpretation. Not the Phantom – he has remained the same since Gaston Leroux first published the novel. Anyway, I am not the only person who saw the potential for the story. Andrew Lloyd Webber “borrowed” a riff from Pink Floyd and turned the story into the highest grossing thing in the history of entertainment. But there have been other adaptations – about forty in film alone. I have seen many of them, and would like to take this opportunity to examine some of the more noteworthy films. Some are good. Some are downright awful. But each do present an original take on the story rather than going through the modern motions of adaptation.
The 1925 Version
This is the version that most still think of when they think of The Phantom of the Opera. Lon Cheney’s make up has become as iconic as any image in film. And for good reason – he designed it himself (using, among other things, translucent fish membranes) and it still looks creepy to the modern eye. But then, the film is never hindered by its age.
Most people will not watch silent films. But this film works because it is silent (although, the DVD I have contains an awkwardly dubbed soundtrack that tried to turn the film into a “talkie.” I’ve avoided watching that version). It feels like a dream, with the operatic scores carrying the plot along more than any other version (even the musicals). The film also does manage to follow the characterizations of the novel pretty closely. The ending is radically different, but it still works for the themes.
Yes, there are moments that don’t work. It could be because of the print (several alternate scenes and versions are lost – what survives today is a sort of reconstruction that did not always pick the best options). Raoul laughs inappropriately constantly (like during the scene of the Phantom talking through a mirror) and Christine is such a low watt bulb that it is incredible anyone could like her. It takes her ten minutes of screen time or so to realize who she is speaking to. You think the mask, the underground lair, and the whole mirror trick would have clued her in.
But then again, the novel is not great literature by any stretch of the imagination. And those moments are not caused by the filmmakers turning their noses up at the material. The film worked for audiences. Some are said to have fainted during the unmasking scene. No other filmed version has come close to that moment of pathos and horror, when we realize why the Phantom has banished himself. The filmmakers seemed to enjoy the story and want to make the best film possible. In doing so, they created the template that all other adaptations of the material would follow.
The 1943 Version
After the great success of the silent version, Universal decided it wanted two bites at the apple. Thus, they remade the film using some of the same sets. They also made it significantly worse, pulling plots points out of thin air and creating some of the silliest moments ever to grace a Phantom adaptation. There are some people who just hate old Hollywood, on the grounds that those films tend to seem like silly fantasies compared to reality. If you are trying to persuade them otherwise, do not show them this film.
In this version, the Phantom is an opera violinist played by Claude Rains (remember Captain Renault in Casablanca? “Round up the usual suspects?” That guy) who has blown all of his money writing a concerto and paying for lessons to Christine. Why he is obsessed with her, the film never says. Anyway, he suspects a publisher is trying to steal his music and attacks him. During this, someone throws acid on his face, scarring him. He steals some opera costumes and goes underground to promote Christine in the usual way for the story – murder and fear.
This is a film that makes one of the stupidest mistakes I can think of – it shows an origin for the Phantom. The character works the more mysterious he is. Showing him as a meek violinist turn into a murderous psychopath just seems too jarring a change to comprehend. Why accept a visit from the good fairy murder over a mundane misunderstanding? Originally, the Phantom’s madness was brought on by years of torment. This guy has one bad thing happen and somehow manages to recreate that internal struggle.
It does work to a certain degree in a later film (you’ll see) but this is meant to be a straight adaptation.
I am not sure why the filmmakers made these changes. Now, I don’t want an adaptation to be straight. Those are boring and pointless. But if a filmmaker is to make changes, it has to be to enhance the themes of the original work. That is not the case with this one – it turns the Phantom into a boring drip, Christine into a manipulating bimbo, and her suitors into wimpy characters that could not do any sort of heroic act. The film was meant to cash in on the original. But it lacked that film’s power and tension. The producers only cared about the money they could make. In the short-term, I guess it worked. But the film’s long-term prospects are nonexistent.
Oh, and one more thing – there is a romantic rival subplot that works about as well as a water fountain that shoots sulfur. Christine, you see, has two potential suitors. One is Raoul (now a policeman) and the other an opera singer who makes such an impression that I have completely forgotten his name (ok, it’s Anatole). The moments when these two are trying to simultaneously flight grind the film to a halt and force enough bad laughs on the audience to fill a Carrot Top convention. The men say the same things at the same time and attempt to walk through doors at the same time. It’s about as funny as it sounds…that is, not funny at all. I never knew that The Phantom of the Opera could be a forum for awkward comedy. I was wrong.
Phantom of the Paradise – This is the only “revisionist” version of the story that I will examine, mostly because it’s the only one that I have seen.
Still, I have referenced it before, usually when I am forced to mention Rocky Horror and then point out how Brian DePalma’s (yea, the Scarface director) little cult film managed to successfully combine rock and roll with horror. It is a musical featuring the typical sort of seventies glam.
Now, the film does do things that I have criticized in other adaptations. For example, the Phantom’s origin is shown. Here’s the thing though – it works here because the changes to the material make it work. The Phantom is more of the tragic hero, while the villain is the Phil Spectoresque Swan (played by songwriter Paul Williams) who has traded his soul for eternal youth. Swan also has his eyes set on the Christine figure named Phoenix, thus making the Phantom’s gestures (which still include murder and maiming) far more understandable.
In addition, DePalma is probably the smartest director to tackle his material. The film includes quotes from many famous films, including Touch of Evil and Faust. Besides, the whole construction of the rock and roll palace threatens to collapse at any moment, but manages to hold its integrity due to DePalma’s genuine love of the time period. It is the same passion Leroux had when writing his original novel. That is something that not even the original silent version could replicate.
Is it faithful? Not in the least. But it is a lot of fun and does more to showcase pop music of the seventies than many other films ever have. The film deserves more recognition than it currently receives.
The Version starring Robert Englund- I’ll go ahead and spoil it – this was the version that surprised me the most. I expected it to be another quickie cash in, especially since it was released so soon after the release of the musical. Plus, it has Robert Englund as the Phantom. At the time, he was (and still is) famous for playing Freddy Krueger. Casting him in anything is to associate oneself with that series of films and admit that the film is dreck.
But the film actually manages to be decent. Oh sure, it makes some mistakes. But it is far more entertaining than it has any right to be. It even lifts some direct quotes from the novel, showing that the filmmakers actually took some time to research it (even though the plot of this film and the plot of the novel differ wildly) and that they actually real like the material.
This is the only film that involves not only time travel, but an actual supernatural element to the Phantom. The Phantom sold his soul to the devil so that his music may live forever. As a payment, Satan destroyed the Phantom’s face. Flash forward a century, and Christine (with the help of Molly Shannon) finds a copy of the Phantom’s music and uses it for an audition. She is hit with a sandbag, and finds herself in Paris in the 19th century, where a “Phantom” is skinning people alive.
Again, the Phantom does not wear a mask during the film. Rather, he stitches pieces of his skin onto the scarred parts of his face. That is just one of the film’s many dalliances with gore. The film also has decapitated heads in soup and skinned victims.
Yes, it is still a grotesque horror film – there were about six thousand or so made in the 1980s. But then again, the novel was a pulp classic and not really meant to be taken seriously. In that case, the film acknowledges the novel’s roots. Besides, Englund actually does show some range with the role. Unlike the cackling Kreuger, his Phantom is just as quiet and mysterious as is usually depicted. He can be menacing when he wants to be, but honestly seems just as content to stay in darkness and woo Christine.
The film also has the right atmosphere – dark, dangerous, and unknown. The sewers are barely lit, the opera barely looks habitable by anyone. It makes what happens seem to make more sense – after all, anyone who lives in this era would be tempted to just skin some people alive in order to get some attention for their art?
I love when a film surprises me with its quality, even if it has not earned it. The film was never ambitious enough to try to become a classic and thus did not really cut loose. But still, for an adaptation of this story, it is possible to do a lot worse. I may be crazy for preferring an 80s slasher film to a piece from Hollywood’s golden age, but then, the slasher film actually managed to be more entertaining.
The Dario Argento Version-Dario Argento is probably the greatest Italian horror director in history. Frames from some of his best films could be considered individual works of art. So why is his version of the story probably the worst filmed Phantom to date? He had even already made a version of the story (in Opera, one of the few genuinely great “slasher” films) so he knew what he was doing.
But nothing about this film works, from the characterization of the titular villain (who is not deformed, but was rather raised by rats in a sewer. Yes, raised by rats. How did he learn to speak? Movie never says, but I think someone must have flushed a copy of “Hooked on Phonics” at one point) to his relationship with Christine (they pretty much beginning humping like rabbits after they meet. Ladies, would there ever be a situation in which you would willingly sleep with a cadaverous rat man? No? OK, then). And that is, believe me, just the least of the film’s problems.
All of the scenes of horror are undercut with a campy attitude that is inappropriate to the mood that Argento is trying to set. There is one scene in which the Phantom sends rats to eat the hand of an intruder. Later, we see that man, and the wound that was caused. “You can see the bone” the man shouts, as he bends his finger again, and again, and again in amazement. The whole idea is so farcical that it could be transplanted into a Mel Brooks comedy with no revision.
That moments sets the stage for the entire film. The Phantom’s main MO is to scratch and bite people (raised by rats, remember?). The actors are so obviously lip syncing their singing that it resembles a badly dubbed Godzilla movie. Plus, Asia Argento (who was fine in Stendhal Syndrome) gives the worst performance of her career. Nothing about it works. Argento tries so hard to create an atmosphere (rather than finding it in the material) that he ignores everything else. And the film is also downright boring. By the 23rd sex scene, I was checking the minute hand on my watch.
Some of it looks nice, demonstrating Argento’s eye for style. But the film is practically unwatchable and doesn’t even have the courtesy to be entertaining. This is the one that I genuinely wish did not exist.
The Musical film – OK, I’ve been putting this one off long enough. At this point, the novel and this musical are inseparable. Well, I do like the stage show and have the original cast recording. The songs, for the most part, capture the gothic ambiance of the novel, and, when it’s done correctly, the sexual tension is present in a way that some of the other films tended to ignore. I also have never understood those who criticized the show’s lack of subtlety. Subtlety and opera go together as well as peanut butter and salmon. But the film is not good, and almost all of that can be blamed on director Joel Schumacher.
Yes, Schumacher. The man who must live every day of his life with the fact that he put nipples on the Batman costume was selected to direct this film for whatever reason. The warning signs should have been there – would Schumacher favor the style rather than the substance? Would he cast people not right for the roles? Both were problems in the Batman films. And they are problems that are repeated here. This is not an overtly terrible film (and the songs are still decent) but it is not something that is worthy of the huge legacy the stage show has built.
And he repeats them here. The cast is largely composed of unknowns (including a pre 300 Gerard Butler and a clone of Anne Hathaway named Emmy Rossum) who were banking on being propelled into stardom. No luck – Butler had to wait an extra three years and Rossum has yet to become a household name.
Of course, they are not as good as some of the actors on stage have been. But that is hardly their fault – no actor phones in their performance and appears to be doing the best they possibly can. The film’s failures rest in two aspects. One, they take away the menace of the Phantom (the same way that the 1943 version did) and two, they focus so much on the visual style that they forget to add any sort of feeling to the material. It’s all about looking theatrical, but not feeling theatrical.
There is one good moment. It comes right at the beginning, during the overture. The chandelier is raised, and the opera house goes from a dilapidated nightmare to a bright and colorful theater. It promises much in terms of skill, but the film does not live up to that promise. Ultimately, the filmmakers were going through the motions, expecting audiences not to care whether or not they made a good adaptation of the musical. They were right in some ways – the film did very well at the box office. However, in the long run, the film has been almost forgotten while the show still continues on stage.
So which one is the best? Probably the 1925 silent version, followed by the Phantom of the Paradise. The 1989 slasher version actually surprised me for the right reason, and Dario Argento’s was surprising for all of the wrong reasons. Still, it is amazing how a film that is almost ninety years old still manages to outshine any modern adaptation. It set the bar high, and subsequent versions feel tied to it. If new versions are to work, they have to break that link and try to make it stand on its own. But it would take a special kind of director to accomplish that herculean task.
Guillermo del Toro? Are you available?