The Phantom Of The Opera (1989) review

The Phantom Of The Opera 1989 posterDirector: Dwight H Little

Starring: Robert Englund, Jill Schoelen, Alex Hyde-White, Bill Nighy

“I don’t believe in phantoms or legends, Mr Dutton, but I do believe in facts. And the fact is, this man – this creature – is still alive. Still alive and living under your opera.” (Hawkins, The Phantom Of The Opera)

There have officially been ‘oodles’ of retellings of The Phantom Of The Opera over the years (I counted: that’s the exact figure). Is this 1989 offering the best?

Put it this way: is the square root of 12,433 the same as the number of men in a standard football team?

No, is what I’m saying.

This ‘modern’ version of Gaston Leroux’s novel switches Paris for London and tries to turn what’s supposed to be a dark romance into more of a slasher movie, with mixed results.

Hull city centre had seen better days
Hull city centre had seen better days

It tells the story of Christine Day, a young American actress eager to break into the big time by landing a role on a big opera.

In an attempt to pass her audition, Christine digs up a rare piece of music – Don Juan Triumphant, an unfinished work by British composer Erik Destler – and decides to perform that.

As she does though, she’s hit by a sandbag (as you do) and wakes up in 19th century London. It’s not clear whether she’s dreaming or was actually sent back in time, but either way she’s in the 1800s now and she seems fine with it.

The new and improved 19th century version of Christine already has a gig: she’s the understudy at a London production of Faust, and is eager to finally get the breakthrough she’s been waiting for.

"Wait a minute, that's not a real house. Or a real tree. THIS STORY IS RIGGED"
“Wait a minute, that’s not a real house. Or a real tree. THIS STORY IS RIGGED”

As ‘luck’ would have it, she already has one adoring fan: Destler himself (played by Robert ‘Freddy Krueger’ Englund), who hides out in the theatre, watching Christine from afar so nobody can see him and his hideously scarred face.

While Christine continues to sing her heart out, Destler manipulates events in the background in order to ensure she gets the lead role she deserves.

Naturally, Destler’s idea of ‘manipulation’ is killing a load of people in horrendously gruesome ways. Hooray!

I really couldn’t get into the 1989 version of The Phantom Of The Opera because it suffers from a serious case of split personality disorder.

"See, that's where the prick with the laser pen was sitting"
“See, that’s where the prick with the laser pen was sitting”

On one hand it’s trying its very best to be a faithful adaptation of Leroux’s story. It includes some elements that most other retellings don’t: the fact that the theatre is putting on a production of Faust, the Phantom’s use of rope traps, the violinist at the cemetery.

It also offers its fair share of opera music throughout, with some lovely performances if you’re into that sort of thing, and lashings of period piece drama and scenery.

But then, almost as if it knows the Phantom’s being played by Freddy Krueger himself and as such loads of Nightmare On Elm Street fans would be queuing up to see it, it decides it wants to be a gory slasher film too.

As a result, you get a gory beheading or two, a man being skinned alive, another set on fire and a few other gruesome moments.

That's one of the early signs of gum disease, that
That’s one of the early signs of gum disease, that

Then there’s the Phantom’s ‘mask’ itself, which this time is actually the dead skin from his victims sewn directly onto his face. This particular Phantom doesn’t do subtlety, it seems.

Let me be clear. I’m not saying there’s absolutely no crossover between fans of opera and period dramas, and fans of ’80s slasher movies. I’m just saying that crossover is fairly small.

As a result, this film was destined to only partially appeal to both audiences. Slasher fans are likely to be bored stiff at the period dialogue and lovely but lengthy opera songs: quite a leap from the summer camp or suburban street settings they’re used to.

Meanwhile, period and opera fans, as well as purists who loved the original story, will baulk at the gory deaths and Freddy Krueger style one-liners (“you’re suspended”, he tells one chap after hanging him upside-down from a balcony: before disemboweling him, naturally).

All while wearing some not very convincing make-up to hide the grotesque face underneath. Am I right, sisterrrrrs? (don't kill me)
All while wearing some not very convincing make-up to hide the grotesque face underneath. Story of our lives, am I right, sisteeeeeers? (don’t kill me)

It’s a shame because for the most part the performances are fine. Jill Schoelen is perfectly likeable as Christine and her cheery nature makes you want to see her succeed, for example.

And Englund himself, with his classical acting background, is genuinely fantastic at times, putting in a subtle performance that verges on chilling… at least until the mask comes off and he turns into scenery-chewing Freddy again.

Fittingly, it seemed that by this point in Englund’s career Freddy was his very own Phantom, hanging over him in every other role he took on. It’s fairly obvious, for example, who the make-up for Destler was based on.

"Come to Fred... um, the Phantom. Come to the Phantom, please"
“Come to Fred… um, the Phantom. Come to the Phantom, please”

The whole thing is wrapped up with a wholly unnecessary return to the present day, where the Phantom continues to chase Christine for another 15 minutes before he’s unconvincingly defeated, setting up a likely sequel.

Alas / thankfully, although Englund was contractually obliged to appear in this sequel, The Phantom Of The Opera tanked (only making $4 million in the US) and said follow-up was scrapped.

This is a weird one. I really wanted to like it and many elements of it impressed me – the set design, for example, is pretty lavish – but in attempting to be a jack of all trades and appeal to a wide range of audiences, The Phantom Of The Opera (fittingly) never settles on a true identity.

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HOW CAN I SEE IT?
The Phantom Of The Opera was recently released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK courtesy of 88 Films’ Cult Horror Collection. Neither version features any special features, though the transfer is nice and sharp. Americans also have DVD and Blu-ray options, from MGM and Shout! Factory respectively. It isn’t currently available for streaming.

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