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The Phantom Of The Opera

by D. Bishop
Tuesday Dec 7, 2004
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It is an unfortunate fact that all productions of Gaston Leroux’s eternally enchanting story The Phantom of the Opera viewed from here on in will be measured against the magic of the Andrew Lloyd Webber staged musical, a comparison that will without doubt not be to the advantage of vast majority of these productions. Even without this comparison however it is not likely that most fans of the original story would be terribly pleased with the 1989 Phantom of the Opera film starring Robert Englund as the ill-starred man behind the mask. Despite a valiant attempt on Englund’s part to inject both horror and feeling into his character, the changes made to the basic tale rob the tale of exactly those qualities that give the original story its everlasting charm, leaving behind a disjointed, almost emotionless husk of a story that just falls short both as a romantic tragedy and a horror film.

Christine (Jill Schoelen) is a contemporary stage actress looking to find that perfect piece of music to use during an audition. Her search yields the unfinished Don Juan Triumphant, penned by the mysterious Erik Dessler, a hauntingly beautiful piece that Christine is sure will net her the role. A falling sandbag however interrupts her performance, and while she is unconscious she dreams about being an understudy singer at the London Opera House at the time when her song is first being written. This Christine is a gifted but as yet undiscovered talent, eclipsed by the haughty diva Carlotta who stands in the way of Christine’s fame and fortune. Luckily, or perhaps unluckily, Christine has a secret mentor whom she refers to as her "angel", who continues to train Christine while he uses murder and intimidation to clear her path to stardom. This "angel" is of course far from heavenly, being a man who makes a deal with the devil to become famous for his music but who must keep his identity hidden as a result of a horrible disfigurement. His intentions regarding Christine are also far from pure, much to the dismay of Christine’s suitor Richard (Alex Hyde-White), and the two finally meet head on after the Phantom kidnaps Christine and brings her to his underground lair. It is Christine, not Richard, however who delivers the fatal blow, saving both her virtue and Richard’s life. The dream ends, and Christine is once again on a New York City stage being offered her dream role by the show’s producer. She does not seem to notice that the producer is somehow familiar....

The beauty of the original story lies in the idea that the Phantom, while a menace, is not essentially evil - he is a victim of a horrible circumstance that left him disfigured and shunned, without the benefit of friends and loved ones to prevent his descent into psychosis. In his heart he is simply an unfortunate reaching out for companionship and his violence is merely a side effect of society’s mistreatment of him, not an inherent flaw in his soul. That is the story’s heart-breaking tragedy. In this film however this dimension is wholly absent - Erik Dessler, while on the surface a meek individual, sells his soul for the sake of his ambition and pays the price. It is impossible to view him as anything but a villain at heart especially when one adds to this his penchant for skinning victims so that he may disguise himself in a flesh mask, an unnecessary element that strips away any remaining shreds of humanity from this character. Attempts are made to reinforce the Phantom’s sympathetic side - he doesn’t kill for the sake of killing for example - but these attempts seem out of place and cannot possibly overcome the character’s inherent evil. The end result is a character which the viewer sees as having no redeeming qualities, a monster more like Dracula than a tragic figure. Given this, the relationship that he has with Christine becomes difficult to accept, and the story settles into a case of a simple stalker and his chosen victim than a complicated love triangle. With the romance sucked out of it, all that is left are the horrific elements, and unfortunately even these fall short of being anything but mediocre with one noteworthy exception - because Erik Dessler has chosen to wear a flesh mask he must sew bits of new skin onto his face to replace older pieces that begin to rot away. These scenes are delightfully grotesque and probably not for the squeamish, though the rest of the film’s violence would not be very challenging except perhaps to very sensitive individuals. As for the rest of the film there are some very well designed scenes, for example the masquerade and Carlotta’s discovery of Joseph’s corpse, but many scenes, as well as the general flow of the action, suffers from some very strange editing choices that leave the film feeling disjointed at times and confused by the sequence of events at others. The film is watchable and has some interesting elements, but outside of the stitching scenes there is very little here that will likely be memorable.

The only extra material provided with this DVD is the Theatrical Trailer, something of a disappointment given the history of the original novel and its many film adaptations, as well as Robert Englund’s stature in this genre.

Special Features Rating: D-


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